Haitian Guest Workers Overstayed Their Visas Because the Government Cancelled the Program for Them
The Trump Administration recently ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to stop issuing H-2A visas for temporary agricultural work to Haitians. One of the reasons given for not allowing Haitians to use the visas was their high overstay rate of about 40 percent in 2016, meaning that about 40 percent of Haitian workers on the H-2A did not leave at the end of the season as they were supposed to. Depending exactly how overstay rates are calculated, they normally range from about 1 to 3.5 percent for workers on H-2A visas.
One reason the H-2A overstay rate is so low is that workers have an excellent chance of coming back year after year if they abide by the rules of the program but, if they overstay or otherwise break the rules, then their chance of earning the visa in the future drops to near zero. However, if the chance of coming back in future years is low because the government could cancel the program then many rational Haitian workers would choose to overstay. That is likely what happened in the example of the Haitian H-2A visa workers.
Economists Michael Clemens and Hannah Postrel wrote a preliminary impact evaluation in February 2017 of allowing Haitians to use the H-2A visa. The government granted only a handful of Haitians visas to work in the United States in 2015 and 2016. Clemens and Postrel report that all of the workers in 2015 returned to Haiti as scheduled. They wrote:
As they vetted potential participants, association leaders were aware that continued participation in the program would be jeopardized if a substantial number of workers overstayed their visas. In the event, all of the workers who traveled returned as scheduled.
Clemens and Postrel didn’t mention the overstay rate for the Haitians who entered in 2016 as that data wasn’t available yet (they were writing the paper in 2016). But if the reports are true that the Haitian H-2A overstay rate jumped to 40 percent in 2016, then it is likely that the workers suspected that the program was going to be canceled under the next administration and that this was their only chance to stay in the United States. The expected loss in lifetime income from the possibility that Trump would win and shut down the program was so great that 40 percent of them decided to take their chances in the black market and scuttle any future chance that they would receive another legal guest worker visa.
This is a wonderful example of how government actions have unintended consequences. Haitians are rational economic actors. If the goal is to keep overstay rates low, then the government needs to make it easy for migrants to earn visas today and to credibly commit to issuing them in the future.