Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly talks to Haitian President Jovenel Moise at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Wednesday. (Jean Marc Herve Abelard/European Pressphoto Agency)
LAST MONTH, on the very day the State Department cautioned Americans on the dangers of traveling to Haiti, the Trump administration warned more than 50,000 Haitians living legally in the United States that they may be forced to return home en masse next January because conditions in their native country had improved so markedly.
The timing of the two announcements was merely coincidental, but it was a telling coincidence. Even as the Trump administration presses ahead with a nativist agenda on multiple fronts, the costs in human hardship of such a policy are abundantly clear.
The Haitians in question have been allowed to stay in the United States since 2010, when a massive earthquake struck Haiti, as beneficiaries of a U.S. government program called Temporary Protected Status. TPS extends humanitarian relief to people from impoverished, war-torn or disaster-wracked countries who are already in the United States when calamity strikes their homelands.
Haiti is one of 10 countries whose citizens in the United States have been granted such relief under TPS. About 80 percent of the 435,000 TPS grantees are from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, all of which are richer than Haiti.
Haiti is a special hardship case. Its economy — a third the size of Vermont’s with a population 17 times larger — depends heavily on remittances from U.S.-based Haitians, including those with TPS, sent home to relatives.
Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly visited Haiti for a few hours Wednesday but saw little beyond the grounds of the earthquake-ravaged presidential palace. In announcing that Haitians with TPS in the United States would for now receive just a six-month extension, until January — their current, 18-month status expires in July — he put a sunny gloss on conditions in the country, saying its economy “continues to recover and grow.”
In fact, the Haitian economy is stagnant. More than 6 million of its 10.4 million people live below the national poverty line of $2.42 a day, according to the World Bank, and a quarter lives on half that.
The staggering poverty is compounded by the earthquake’s lingering effects, the world’s worst cholera epidemic and a major hurricane (Matthew), which caused nearly $2 billion in damage to Haiti last year. Against those misfortunes, Mr. Kelly’s six-month reprieve looks stingy.
It’s fair to wonder whether there will ever be, in the foreseeable future, a right time to send more than 50,000 Haitians back to a country so beset with chronic problems. The honest answer is no, although by harboring them indefinitely the effect may be to make some Americans reluctant to grant TPS status to other countries in the future, lest a program intended to be temporary turns out to be more-or-less permanent.
The question is one of comparative burdens. The truth is that the United States can easily absorb Haitians and others from TPS nations, already living here legally, whose home countries would struggle to receive them. To this country, already home to more than 600,000 Haitian immigrants, the additional 50,000 are a blip. To Haiti, wracked by natural disasters, their arrival en masse would be a new, man-made hardship. Why would the hemisphere’s richest nation do that to the poorest?