Saturday, 5 December 2015

Understanding Caribbean Immigration Issues

It's been five years since I wrote this, but I think it is worth some reflection now:

Media Coverage of Migration in the Americas – the Caribbean Migrations

Wesley Gibbings, Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers
University of Texas at Austin, Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas
September 10, 2011

The first question that arises when examining the subject of international migration and the Caribbean is exactly which Caribbean you are referring to. Is it the Caribbean represented by the Association of Caribbean States – 25 states sharing the Caribbean Sea? Or is it the Caribbean as defined by the treaty establishing the 15-member Caribbean Community and Common Market?

Even within the Caribbean Community grouping, one may wish to make a distinction between French-speaking Haiti and the former Dutch colony Suriname and the former British colonies. I will focus on the 13 English-speaking Member States of the Caribbean Community, which includes the mainland territories of Belize and Guyana.

These kinds of distinctions, though not generally reflected in hemispheric studies, are important since the socio-economic dynamics at play are relatively unique. The United Kingdom, for example, does not feature prominently in the emigration statistics for Haiti and Suriname. The early dynamics of immigration also differ considerably since many British colonies in the Caribbean were once used as clearing houses for African slaves en route to the United States in the 17th Century. The eventual dominance of British colonialism also contributes to the fact that Caribbean immigrants today display a much higher level of English-language proficiency than other groups from the wider region and are today more easily accommodated into the education system and workforce of the United States than many other source countries.

Additionally, throughout the history of the English-speaking Caribbean, the only thing as profound as the effects of outward migration on our respective populations has been the centuries-long impact of a constant stream of inward migration – featuring both intra-regional and extra-regional inputs. We need not trace our steps back to the flow of the early Amerindian inhabitants or even the15th century conquests of the Portuguese and Spanish to make the point.

But it would be useful to note that our countries experienced net population gains as a result of immigration right through to the 1800s and that later growth in numbers included inflows related to the end of slavery in the British colonies, the nurturing of new settlements driven by increased trade and commerce with Europe and, in the case of Trinidad and Tobago, the transplanting of ex-slaves from what is now the United States of America.

To this day, for example, there are villages in Trinidad named for the military companies these early African-Americans fought under as soldiers for the British in the War of American Independence. A small number of freed American slaves also moved to several Caribbean islands, together with indentured labourers from Madeira, Germany, England and, to a much greater degree, from India.

The movement of significant numbers of people back and forth is therefore nothing new to people of the English-speaking Caribbean. With the exception of a small number of indigenous groups, few families can lay claim to longstanding genealogical links from within the Caribbean region. The Caribbean, in a sense, comprises quintessential immigrant societies.

Today, population outflows greatly outweigh immigration inflows – though we probably need to more closely examine the impact of Guatemalan and Honduran inflows into Belize, Brazilians into Guyana and Haitian refugees reaching Bahamian shores - to cite a few noteworthy examples.

Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago are cited in the statistics as being among the biggest gross contributors within the English-speaking bloc to an overall legal Caribbean-born immigrant population of over 3.5 million in the United States. The wider diasporic community, including persons born in the US, is in the vicinity of 6 million.

The official figure for Jamaicans comprises 435,000 documented immigrants, though the general suspicion is that well over 1,000,000 Jamaicans currently reside in the United States – both legally and illegally. 

The official figure in 2009 for Trinidadians and Tobagonians who hold United States citizenship is a little under 165,000. The total figure for all immigrants is probably much higher, but the very nature of the official and unofficial processes to eventually gain residency prevents us from more specific figures.

With respect to Guyana, which is not counted among the ‘Caribbean’ countries in the official international statistics, it is estimated that more than 400,000 Guyanese live in the U.S. and Canada. This is more than half of the current population of a little over 770,000 in a country than spans more than 215,000 square kilometers – about a third the size of the state of Texas. According to one diplomatic cable dispatch, recently published by Wikileaks, more than 6,800 Guyanese legally migrate to the USA every year.


The “push” factors of political and economic conflict and hardship, coupled with the “pull” factor of familial and other links in the United States together with generally stringent immigration procedures combine to create conditions under which the US embassy in Guyana was moved to note what it described as “rampant” fraud in the execution of family-based and other petitions to secure settlement in the United States.

In all instances, though, outward migration to the United States and other developed countries invokes a number of key issues relevant to Caribbean development. The United Nations Population Division identifies the net migration rate for the Caribbean as being among the highest in the world. Guyana, Jamaica and Saint Lucia have, in per capita terms, been the front-runners. Caribbean immigrants as a group accounted for roughly 3.2 percent of unauthorised immigrants in 2009.

Among the major consequences has been a phenomenal loss of skills in selected areas. For example, the 2011 Report on International Migration in the Americas notes that between 20 and 30 percent of emigrants from Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, the Bahamas, Belize, Dominica and Grenada are employed in nursing. There are corresponding studies that determine the net financial loss on training investment in this area.

Caribbean immigrants have also been found to be more likely than other immigrants to have graduated from high school and a gender imbalance has been observed - Grenada (60.1 percent women), Barbados (58.3 percent women), Trinidad and Tobago (56.1 percent women) and Jamaica (55.7 percent women). This has a bearing on some peculiar features of Caribbean migratory trends including what Prof. Sheila Velez, an ACM associate and professor at the University of Pittsburg School of Law, describes as the “feminisation” of migration.

Among other things, this phenomenon as indicated by Prof. Velez, expresses itself in the nature of the financial remittances of immigrants. The statistics show that while women account for 52.5 percent of all migrants to the United States they are responsible for 58 percent of the remittances sent back home.

This is important, since remittances are, currently, among the most important sources of external finance to many developing countries. They surpass foreign aid in most instances and are second only to foreign direct investment. In Latin America, remittances from the United States account for about 75 per cent of all such financial transfers from abroad. The financial crash of 2007-2008 impacted directly on remittances with the figures for Latin America declining from US$69.2 billion in 2008 to US$58.9 billion for the year so far.

The region’s inherent vulnerabilities as small island states also predisposes it to peculiar challenges such as vulnerability to natural disasters, a shortage of resources to police coastlines to counteract human and narcotics trafficking, sovereign boundary issues because of the proximity of the islands to each other and limited economic prospects particularly on the part of younger members of the workforce.

Agencies such as the International Organisation for Migration therefore focus heavily on issues such as human trafficking, the promotion of inter-state dialogue, building capacities in migration management and operational procedures, promoting migrants’ rights (including access to health care), increasing income-generating options in post-conflict and/or post-disaster, unstable environments, and facilitating labour migration.

In such approaches, Caribbean journalists find abundant fodder. But among the more spectacular phenomena, regularly reported in the Caribbean media, associated with regional migration to the United States has been the high incidence of criminal deportations back to the islands.


A 2007 World Bank Report noted that between 1993 and 2004, Jamaica alone absorbed up to 1,200 criminals a year. This has presented a serious issue of social re-integration – in many instances involving people with limited knowledge of the countries to which they are being returned.
Members of the Caribbean diasporic community also play an important role in directing the social discourse not only on issues of immigration but on pivotal social and political issues. The contribution of overseas nationals to political campaign financing has also recently become a contentious issue in many Caribbean countries, the prevailing view being that such contributions tend to generate a disproportionate share of post-election rewards back to overseas political investors.
Journalistic coverage of these issues can benefit from a more wholesome understanding of the true nature of the phenomenon of Caribbean immigration into the United States. Caribbean governments are much more efficient at releasing figures on tourist arrivals than they are at publishing statistics related to those who leave our shores. This is understandable for a number of reasons including the fact that not all persons who leave without an intention to immediately return are required on standard immigration forms to do so. There is also a high level of political reticence by ruling administrations on the issue of citizens desirous of doing so on account of economic, human rights and other social reasons.
Some immediate issues that currently necessitate more ample coverage and journalistic understanding would include:
  1. The incidence of re-migration and degree of official and informal receptivity to persons who have live abroad and now wish to return on a permanent basis;
  2. The processing and treatment of criminal deportees – many of whom no longer have any meaningful ties to their home territories and some of whom have much better developed criminal skills than their domestic counterparts;
  3. The role of the Caribbean Diaspora in the United States is both significant and influential. There is an established link, for example, between political campaign activity and the financial contributions of overseas’ nationals at times of elections;
  4. There is fairly reliable, ongoing research on high levels of financial remittances, but little knowledge of retention rates – the extent to which remittance expenditures are repatriated on US goods and services;
  5. There is a need to more fully disaggregate the incidence of intra-regional migration, in part because of the existence of the CARICOM Single Market, and broader extra-regional inward migration to address the perception that Caribbean countries continue to host a burdensome disproportion of regional nationals;
  6. Within recent years, there has been an upsurge in new migrants from the African continent, India and, most significantly China. Much of this has arisen out new business and investment initiatives on the part of a growing number of Chinese businesses. The impact on inward migration has been noticeable.

The issue of Caribbean immigration, both the inflows and the outflows, represents one of the more remarkable features of the global people-scape. We are said to be present virtually anywhere, especially in the United States, where we have contributed richly to the political, economic, social and cultural aesthetic of one of a land so many of us call our second home.