Haitians upended by country’s earthquake once again face uncertainty

May 14, 2017
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By  GLOBE STAFF  MAY 14, 2017

Marianne never intended to stay in the United States. She came to New York on a temporary visa in 2008 hoping to sell her handmade jewelry and make enough money to take back home to Haiti.

Two years later, a powerful earthquake struck her native country, killing at least 300,000 people and leaving Haiti in rubble. Marianne’s 4-bedroom house was destroyed and her aunt died in the disaster.

Since then, Marianne and nearly 60,000 other Haitians have received refuge under a federal program known as temporary protected status, which allows immigrants from countries torn apart by violence or natural disasters who cannot return as a result to work and live legally in the United States.

But now the Trump administration is weighing whether to extend or revoke the status, a decision that could affect more than 4,300 people living in Massachusetts and parts of New Hampshire.

The Department of Homeland Security has until May 22 to decide. Under federal law, a decision must be made 60 days prior to the expiration date of the program, which for Haitians affected by the earthquake falls on July 22. If the program is not extended, it could lead to the deportation of thousands of Haitians.

For Marianne, a home health aide who now lives in Boston and gave birth to a daughter here four years ago, returning to Haiti is unthinkable.

“There is nothing in Haiti,” Marianne said through an interpreter. “I lost everything.”

She asked to be identified only by her first name for fear US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement will deport her if TPS is not extended.

Hundreds of religious leaders, the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation, and union officials, as well as the ambassador of Haiti, have written letters to Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, imploring him to extend the status not just as a humanitarian gesture, but also as a matter of practicality.

“Most of these Haitians are model citizens who are guests in this country, working and supporting Haiti economically,” said Paul G. Altidor, the Haitian ambassador to the United States. “Breaking this process [suddenly] would be harmful not just to Haiti but to the United States.”

Those living in Haiti have come to rely heavily on Haitians with TPS who send money back to a country where jobs remain scarce.

Altidor said Haitians dependent on that money could become desperate enough to flee if they fear their loved ones will no longer be able to support them.

“They’ll have more incentives to take risky voyages to the United States’s shores,” he said.
“Rather than simply cutting TPS overnight without a clear plan of how that’s going to be phased out, we’re asking for a renewal of at least 12 to 18 months as we set up our development plans in Haiti.”

Altidor said Haiti is still trying to recover not just from the earthquake, but also from a cholera outbreak that followed and a 2016 hurricane that devastated efforts to rebuild the country. Economic and building prospects are improving in Haiti, Altidor said, but it is happening slowly. A large influx of returning Haitians could further destabilize the region.

Altidor said he and Haiti’s foreign minister have contacted Kelly’s office and are planning to meet to discuss TPS.

In a prepared statement, DHS said that Kelly has not made a decision yet.

“The Secretary’s decision will be based on a thorough assessment of the conditions in the country,” according to the statement.

Advocates have been rattled by the recommendation of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services not to extend the status and by news reports that federal officials are seeking evidence of criminal activity by Haitianswith TPS.

DHS officials said the decision to extend TPS will not be based on criminal history.

Kelly “has asked the staff for detailed information to increase his understanding of how the program operates,” the department said in a statement.

Since 1999, 12 other countries have been designated for TPS because of war or environmental disasters. The designation has been extended for immigrants from these countries during the administrations of both Republican and Democratic presidents.

Most people with protected status have no other way to stay in the country legally if the program is not extended, said Anthony Marino, director of legal services at the Irish International Immigration Center in Boston, which provides help to immigrants from 120 countries, including Haiti.

In the last seven years, many Haitians in the program have had children, found steady work, and bought homes, Marino said.

“We can’t be sending tens of thousands of people back who have these significant ties here and to a country that has no ability to reabsorb them,” he said. “Is it right to uproot and exile people? For what? To what benefit?”

The possible deportation of so many Haitians could have detrimental effects on American citizens, according to advocates.

Haitians represent a sizeable portion of home health aides and nursing staff, a workforce that is already shrinking, said Robert Espinoza, vice president of policy at PHI National, which represent home care workers and nursing assistants.

“The attacks on immigrants, the restrictions and any effort to curb immigration in this country comes at a terrible time when we’re seeing a shortage of direct care workers,” he said. “There will be a time where when you or your family member will need a caregiver to support you. Now it’s going to be even more difficult to find a careworker.”

Marianne, who works 40 hours a week, sends $50 to her eldest son, who is 28 and lives with an aunt in Haiti.

Last year, Marianne’s two other sons, who are 10 and 17, came to the US on visas to attend school.

Marianne has not talked about the possibility of losing TPS with them or her daughter, who is a US citizen but would have to move back to Haiti because there is no other family in Boston that could care for her if the rest of her family is deported.

“I haven’t said anything to them because I don’t want them [worrying] and having trouble in school,” Marianne said. “There is nothing I can do. I’m just waiting to see what the government will do.”

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.

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