By Jacqueline Charles
Haitian nationals who have been protected from deportation from the U.S. for more than seven years since an earthquake struck their homeland won one more temporary reprieve Monday: The Department of Homeland Security announced that it will extend the benefit, which expires on July 22, for another six months.
But even though DHS Secretary John Kelly did not terminate the program as one of his top officials had recommended, the 58,706 Haitians currently enrolled in the Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, program should begin to get their affairs in order for their eventual return to Haiti, officials said Monday.
“This six-month extension should allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States, and should also provide the Haitian government with the time it needs to prepare for the future repatriation of all current TPS recipients,” Kelly said. “We plan to continue to work closely with the Haitian government, including assisting the government in proactively providing travel documents for its citizens.”
Kelly said he decided to offer the extension after careful review of the current conditions in Haiti and conversations with the Haitian government.
“Haiti has made progress across several fronts since the devastating earthquake in 2010,” he said. “The Haitian economy continues to recover and grow, and 96 percent of people displaced by the earthquake and living in internally displaced person camps have left those camps. Even more encouraging is that over 98 percent of these camps have closed. Also indicative of Haiti’s success in recovering from the earthquake seven years ago is the Haitian government’s stated plans to rebuild the Haitian president’s residence at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, and the withdrawal of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.”
Reaction to the news was mixed. While some lawmakers such as Miami Democrat Frederica Wilson and Republican Senator Marco Rubio viewed it as an opportunity to keep fighting, state Sen. Daphne Campbell and activist Marleine Bastien said they were disappointed.
“I’m very, very disappointed. This is a slap in our face,” Campbell said. “What is six months? As soon as you put your head down to sleep, it’s six months. After six months, what is next? The TPS people are invested in this country; they have businesses, they have homes here. Immigrants built America.”
Bastien said she expects thousands of Haitians families to lose their jobs in the coming weeks even as DHS announces they should begin reapplying for work authorizations up until July 23.
“And then what? This is not a win for us,” Bastien said. This is gravely disappointing. We are urging everyone to call our lawmakers, [Sens.] Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson and others in the Trump administration. We are leaving people hanging. It’s cruel and inhumane. The conditions in Haiti are horrible enough for them to renew TPS for 18 months to 24 months.”
Wilson was among the first who was informed of DHS’ decision. Her office was in the midst of a Twitter storm pushing to renew the program.
With other Democratic and Republican lawmakers, plus Haitian and immigration advocates, Wilson had been fighting for an 18-month extension. The acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had recommended six months extension, with termination of the program in January.
“You have to take everything you get and you have to maximize what you get. Within that six months, you have to work your magic,” Wilson said.
Wilson said she is extending a personal invitation to DHS Secretary Kelly to travel with her to Haiti in the coming months so that he can see in person why sending 58,000 Haitians back is “unconscionable.”
“We just can’t deport people back to those conditions. Tent cities still remain from the earthquake,” she said. “I want them to go with me because… They will take you and you will never see the tent cities. I want someone to go with me. I will be sure to take them to the places to see, so that they will be more inclined to extend it even further.”
Rubio, who has been lobbying on behalf of the Haitian community, said he’ll continue to work with the Trump administration. “Last week, I asked the White House to extend the TPS deadline for Haitians until at least January 18, and I’m glad to see that the administration agreed. I look forward to continuing to work closely with the White House and DHS on this issue.”
Haitian and immigration advocates had hoped for 18 months more of TPS but on April 10, USCIS Acting Director James McCament sent a memo to Kelly recommending termination. McCament argued that “Haiti has made significant progress in recovering” from the quake, which qualified Haiti for the TPS designation. He said Haitians should only be allowed to remain in the U.S. until January — six months after the program’s current July 22 expiration day.
Activists have argued that Haiti’s recovery from the earthquake was set back by Hurricane Matthew in October. The country was already struggling with a food crisis prompted by a three-year drought, and recent rains have caused flooding, making an already desperate situation worse.
Campbell said the fight has only just started. She has called on all Haitian-American elected officials across the U.S to form a coalition to head to Washington to push for an extension beyond six months.
Haitians aren’t the only group granted TPS. More than 200,000 Hondurans, El Savadorans and Nicaraguans have been allowed to live and work freely in the United States ever since Hurricane Mitch barreled through Central America in 1995. While the protection had been set to expire July 22 for Haitians, it expires in January 2018 for Hondurans and Nicaraguans, and in March 2018 for Salvadorans.
Jimmy Parfait, a North Miami Beach resident, who is enrolled in the TPS program along with his mother Marie, said six months is better than outright termination.
“You never know. They will probably extend it for another six months,” he said. “Hopefully something good comes out of it.”
DHS’ decision comes after unprecedented advocacy by organizations and individuals. Over the weekend artists from hip hop star Wyclef Jean to several Haitian konpa musicians called on Kelly and President Donald Trump to extend TPS. Concert attendees during the two-day Haitian Compas Festival were also provided with phone numbers for DHS and the White House. And on Monday, a Tweet up was started to “#SayYestoTPS” and to “#SaveTPS.”
Before Monday’s announcement, activists had criticized reports that Homeland Security has been conducting a probe to determine if Haitian TPS holders had criminal histories, and whether they were obtaining public benefits, which they are not eligible to receive.
The Associated Press published portions of leaked internal emails from USCIS policy chief Kathy Nuebel Kovarik telling staff members to look for stories about rebuilding in Haiti and reports of criminal activity by those with TPS.
“Even though it’s only a snapshot and not representative of the entire situation, we need more than ‘Haiti is really poor’ stories,” Kovarik wrote on April 28, the AP reported.
The call for extension garnered bipartisan support among U.S. lawmakers and state officials in Florida, New York and Massachusetts. Florida’s Democratic senator, Nelson, who had already written Kelly in support of the extension, sent another letter last week emphasizing the Haitian government’s request to extend the benefit. Haiti, Nelson said, had only recently formed a government after long-delayed elections and prolonged political crisis, and ending TPS too soon would be disruptive.
Boston Attorney General Maura Healey and Massachusetts state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry also asked Kelly for an extension, while the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association said it was also joining the call. Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Haiti’s foreign minister both met separately with Kelly.
On Monday during a press conference on TPS held in Miami’s Little Haiti, members of the Haitian community said they worry that the end of deportation protection will mean breaking up homes.
Santcha Etienne, a 36-year-old union organizer from Haiti who came to the U.S. in 2000 and is not a TPS recipient, said she has many friends and a cousin who have built their lives here. If they are deported, they would return to no jobs or homes in Haiti.
“It’s really hurtful, as a Haitian person, as a citizen,” she said. “I’m sure this is just the beginning of our fight.”
A 10-year-old girl, also at the press conference, who gave her name as Vanessa, said she sometimes searches facts about the humanitarian crisis in Haiti because she’s worried about her parents leaving her.
“I’d be scared because without my parents, I would be nothing,” she said, fighting back tears.
She appealed to President Donald Trump. “I believe that you’re gonna help us because you’re a father and the president of the United States,” she said.
Miami Herald reporter Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.