Haitians in the United States are choosing more affordable cities to live and work over typical enclaves like New York and Miami.
This story is part of a series looking at the movement of Haitians and Haitians Americans across the United States. It is made possible through the support of the Ford Foundation.
INDIANAPOLIS — Years ago at the Université Quisqueya medical school in Port-au-Prince, a group of seven students formed a bond of friendship that saw them through graduation, the start of their careers as doctors and other milestones, including immigrating to America. Now, members of the seven are, or were initially, living in this Midwest city of an estimated 880,621 residents.
“We have relatives living in Florida and in New York,” said Olivier Joseph, 40, one of those seven friends who moved to Indianapolis with a school colleague whose family already lived there.
“We want to feel free, to feel comfortable, [so we live] with friends,” said Joseph, who asked to use a pseudonym to not jeopardize his employment prospects. “My roommate and I, we met a lot of others [in Indianapolis] who are from Haiti or from our medical school. We have a lot of young people here.”
Over the past 20 years, Haitian immigrants have fanned out to U.S. locations that have little prior experience with immigration, demographers and social scientists said. The shift is driven primarily by the availability of jobs, as well as the fact that housing prices are lower than in major metro areas.
“Immigration is very much a network phenomenon,” said Michelle Mittelstadt, communications director at Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “Haitian immigrants follow patterns of immigration established over the last 20 to 25 years. “Immigration was really, very much, a phenomenon of just six states,” Mittelstadt said, listing Florida, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, California and Texas.
Although those six states remain top destinations for immigrants of all nationalities, Haitians are now living in Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, Iowa and Indiana, among others.
People flock to locations where they know others because moving tends to be stressful. But if families enjoy a positive experience — for example, their children are happily enrolled in the local school system — they’ll share it with others. It always helps to have someone translate and be an intermediary in the assimilation process, Mittelstadt said.
And when one family opens the way for a second family and then a third, the ultimate results are Kreyòl-speaking churches, Haitian restaurants and grocery stores, and annual Flag Day celebrations.
Gentrification of eastern U.S. cities such as Brooklyn and Miami make those cities prohibitively expensive while good-paying jobs remain elusive. In contrast, other areas of the country, such the Midwest and the South, offer solid paying jobs and are relatively inexpensive places to settle.
This migration from general east coast regions to smaller enclaves is a quintessential American immigrant story of ethnic groups seeking the proverbial American Dream. It’s a journey Italians, Irish and Mexicans have forged and Haitian immigrants continue that migration tradition.
How Haitians come to America
An estimated 1.2 million people of Haitian ancestry — both born in Haiti and the U.S. — live throughout America. The population is made up of various émigré groups from the last 200 years, which have arrived in waves:
- The first large group of migrants were the thousands of Haitians who fled during the Haitian Revolution and settled in Louisiana.
- Another set of Haitian immigrants arrived between the 1960s and 1970s, pushed out mainly by political oppression under Haitian President François Duvalier.
- About a third of those born outside the U.S. arrived in the States between the 1980s and 2000 as economic opportunities dwindled and social chaos rose in Haiti.
- The catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti displaced 1.5 million Haitians, many of whom left for other countries across the Americas. Almost 60,000 arrived in the U.S. and later received Temporary Protected Status, which allowed them to live and work legally. The New York Times reported that 1,200 Haitian children were adopted through expedited paperwork in the quake’s aftermath.
- Others have entered the U.S. over decades through tourist visas, family sponsorship to bring in close relatives left back home and other legal programs.
- In 2020 and 2021, thousands of Haitians who spent the decade toiling in South and Central American countries such as Brazil and Chile arrived through the U.S.-Mexico border.
- In January, the Biden administration initiated a humanitarian parole program for Haitians, Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans. To date, approximately 168,000 from those Latin and Caribbean countries have entered the U.S.
Exact numbers of Haitians on the current wave are unavailable. Analysts for the U.S. Census Bureau reports the 2020 Census undercounts Blacks by 3.3% and details on ethnic groups are limited. ZipAtlas, a marketing firm cross-referencing the Census with other federal data, developed a website that shows estimated counts of people by ethnicity. It estimates, for example, the population of Haitian descendents living in Indiana to be 1,485.
Inland jobs lure immigrants old and new
While figures are nebulous, individual anecdotes suggest real-time stories taking place in cities, suburbs and rural counties across the U.S. Among them, Haitians working at a meat processing plant in Oshkosh, Wis., a former Top-Chef contestant running a restaurant in Milford, N.H., and an immigration support group serving Haitians in Des Moines, Ia.
Immigrants, in general, have been willing to live in high-wage cities where the cost of living also is high, according to a 2018 American Economic Review study. To afford those locations, many immigrants tend to live in smaller apartments and share space to save as much from their pay as possible for remittances sent home to relatives, the study said.
Newcomers tend to trust the advice and opportunities offered by those already in the U.S. Despite deep housing shortages, widespread wealth inequality and inflation fears taking place in the U.S., they listen to friends and family for the best places to immigrate.
“The newer generations, [the children born to Haitian parents], are more sophisticated, in terms of how to understand U.S. power relations. They’re more demanding than we were,” said Francois Pierre-Louis, Ph.D., whose scholarly work at CUNY’s Queens College has focused on Haitian immigration.
His generation had to be careful because it remembered the terror inflicted under the Duvalier Regime in Haiti. But newer generations don’t know that fear and can act with greater boldness, he said.
Djanm Antoine, whose name is fictitious to protect him, was an education and community administrator from the Jacmel area, who came to the U.S. a few years ago and received Temporary Protected Status in 2022. A Haitian friend gave him a place to live in a suburb of Philadelphia and supported him as he awaited his work permit and Social Security card to arrive. Up until then, he worked for a food processing plant under someone else’s name.
Having worked jobs in Maine, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Antoine noted lesser-paying jobs in the U.S. are reserved for new immigrants like him.
“Here is a country of opportunity, but frustratingly, you can’t live without money to pay bills,” he said, noting cultural differences between the U.S. and Haiti. “Where I come from, it’s different. People share with those who ask, and with those even if they don’t ask.”
Joseph, also from the Jacmel area, is applying for a package handler position at FedEx to pay his bills in Indianapolis. He will soon take the exam to become a medical assistant, so he can return to the medical field, even if he must start below his trained level. He also studies for the licensing exam to become a physician in the U.S., a lengthier process for an international medical graduate.
His scenario is not unlike other Haitians who arrived in preceding decades and took manual, retail and other lower-wage jobs to live. Joseph, also like them, is waiting for his wife and daughter to join him.
Despite hardships, efforts appear worth the wait, according to “Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success.” The authors estimate immigrants, in general, can more than double their earnings by coming to the U.S.
“America really does have golden streets that allow newcomers to quickly make more than they could have earned at home,” Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan said. “But we also find that moving up the economic ladder in America — and catching up to the U.S. born — takes time.”
Building a foundation for newcomers
Children of immigrants surpass the children of US-born parents in achieving upward mobility — a dynamic combination of money, power, autonomy and value in the community, according to Abramitzky and Boustan. The children from immigrants of higher income countries tend to earn more than those of lower income.
Further, the daughters of parents from the Caribbean countries of Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago do remarkably well, moving up the ladder faster than the daughters of white U.S.-born parents. And they do better than their brothers.
Many women of Haitian descent achieve success outside those original six states for Haitian immigration. For example, Juliette Nelson developed her business, Nurilens Eyewear, in College Park, Md. Kantara Souffrant, curator of community dialogue, works at the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin. In addition, female dancers, visual artists and writers make their homes in Minneapolis, Minn.
Further, the job-seeking behavior of newcomers is highly tied to their relatives’ influence. Of those Haitians who obtained a green card, known as lawful permanent residence status, in fiscal year 2018, the overwhelming majority did so with the influence of their immediate relatives or through other family-sponsored preferences, according to Department of Homeland Security data.
Acceptance for newcomers has increased as stigmas, such as the incorrect inference that Haitians were at increased risk for acquiring HIV, have decreased.
Further, personalities in American culture, such as Denver Broncos’ player Jerry Jeudy and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, help smooth the entry for newer immigrants, Pierre-Louis said.
The publicized accomplishments of Haitian-Americans have helped diminish stereotypes associated with them. It has made it less challenging for members of the diaspora to embrace their heritage as they enter the U.S. and find their place.
The generation, which came to the U.S. during the time of Duvalier, is different from today’s immigrants, Pierre-Louis said. The group arriving here in the 1960s through 1980s expected to return to Haiti and, so, invested time and money in hometown associations, structures lending support to their Haitian hometowns and providing money to those back home. But the creation of associations in the U.S. offered unintended benefits.
“We begin to have democratic norms and standards because people have to file reports,” Pierre-Louis said. “We had to have minutes; they had to be accountable.” The process of running the associations fostered democratic practices and a civic familiarity.
The end result is that a large number of Haitians are now elected officials.
Haitians have a voice in government policy and a much greater visibility as an ethnic group. They garner support from organizations, such as the Caribbean-American Political Action Committee, which advances the political agenda of those Caribbean-Americans living in the Washington, D.C., metro area.
Seizing new opportunities, shaping new lives
Temporary Protected Status and work permits appear to have provided greater latitude for Haitians. Those legal programs offer newcomers more options as to where to live and work. New immigrants can bypass Haitian enclaves or leave them sooner than would have been possible in the past, depending a shorter time on family and friends.
“There’s a huge need in the labor market right now,” Mittlestadt said. “The Bureau of Labor Statistics has been reporting every month since 2021. There are more than 10 million job vacancies. And so employers are really clamoring and, of course, to the extent possible and those who are good actors, for people who have TPS.”
“My clients used to be in Miami, New York, Georgia, Louisiana, but now they’re also in smaller cities like Indianapolis — in every state,” said Tedhy Louis, CEO of Snapmar, a consulting company for small business startups based in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Smaller locations offer additional advantages to many newcomers.
Louis was living in New York with his father initially. He visited relatives in Grand Rapids twice and fell in love with Michigan. Plus, the state required six months to establish residency, an advantage to Louis, who planned to attend a state-run college because it costs less.
As he has demonstrated with his consulting firm, whose client base includes people from Europe and the U.S., entrepreneurs can work from anywhere. Louis, 30 and single, encourages his Haitian clients to start new enterprises in just about every direction — from repairing electronic devices to nursing to snow removal.
“After spending one year here, Haitians especially know how to remove snow,” Louis said. “Everyone has a gift; it’s just figuring out how to use that gift in the U.S., how to best serve other people with that gift.”
Graphs showing Haitian immigration and its influence