The Trump administration is criminalizing Haitian refugees

  • A young man on the roof of his home surveys the neighborhood of Lavale de Bourdon in the commune of Petion Ville in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, on May 9, 2017 / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMALHECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

A young man on the roof of his home surveyed the neighborhood of Lavale de Bourdon in the commune of Petion Ville in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.

May 14, 2017

It didn’t take long for Haitians to find out how President Trump really feels about them. While campaigning last fall in Miami’s Little Haiti, he said: “The Haitian-American community adds so much to our country: dedication to family, perseverance, entrepreneurship.”

Now they, too, have fallen victim to his administration’s relentless efforts to criminalize immigrants and refugees left and right.

About 58,000 Haitian beneficiaries of an emergency immigration program will see their status expire in July unless the administration approves an extension. As the Homeland Security secretary John Kelly weighs his decision, internal communications reported by the Associated Press last week reveal a malicious and unprecedented effort by the federal government that seems designed to find disingenuous reasons to cancel the program. Top immigration officials have put out requests for derogatory information about those Haitians, including how many have been convicted of “crimes of any kind,” and how many have been taking advantage of public benefits (which they are not even eligible to receive in the first place). The administration appears to hope it can find a few horror stories to justify disrupting the lives of thousands.

The requests came from Kathy Nuebel Kovarik, chief of policy at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, to her staff. When agency officials responded that they couldn’t collect data on criminality, she said: “I know some of it is not captured, but we’ll have to figure out a way to squeeze more data out of our systems. . . . Please dig for any stories (successful or otherwise) that would show how things are in Haiti. . . . We should also find any reports of criminal activity by any individual with TPS [Temporary Protected Status]. Even though it’s only a snapshot and not representative of the entire situation, we need more than ‘Haiti is really poor’ stories.”

Apparently the new administration believes that Haiti’s misery is just a matter of media narrative. The AP report follows the recommendation of USCIS’s acting director, James McCament, to terminate Haitians’ protected status as of January.

That would be reckless and ill-advised. The temporary protected designation is a federal relief program granted to certain countries with deteriorating conditions caused by armed conflicts, natural disasters, or health epidemics. Only eligible immigrants can apply, and a criminal record or background is disqualifying.

Trump officials are ignoring the more than sufficient evidence demonstrating that Haiti is still vulnerable. Seven years after a devastating earthquake killed more than a quarter of Haitians and displaced more than 1 million people, the country struggles to recover. “Many of the conditions prompting the original January 2010 TPS designation persist, including a housing shortage, a cholera epidemic and limited access to medical care, damage to the economy,” read, in part, a memo from Citizenship and Immigration Services prepared in December. Hurricane Matthew not only complicated any recovery efforts and progress, but also left nearly 900,000 Haitians suffering from severe food insecurity.

Even more troubling, there is concern among immigration advocates that the Trump administration might be setting a precedent to use the same rationale to cancel the protected status of Salvadorans and Hondurans next year. That would leave some 350,000 Central Americans vulnerable to being sent back to extremely unsafe countries.

The Haiti decision, due May 23, will not only be a critical litmus test for the temporary protected status program, but also a telling statement about American values.


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