Once upon a time, Donald Trump tried to fashion himself as Haiti’s savior. “To all of our friends in Haiti, and in Little Haiti, your day of justice is coming,” the then-candidate told a crowd of Haitians in South Florida last October. “And it arrives on Nov. 8.”
Yet President Trump’s administration now is on the verge of inflicting more misery on Haiti and the Haitian American community. Nearly 60,000 Haitians who have been legally living in the United States for more than a decade could be deported if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) chooses not to extend what is known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for them. The administration has assumed anti-immigrant, anti-refugee stances since assuming power. But forcing mass deportations to Haiti would not only be exceptionally heartless for those already living here but also could set one of the world’s poorest countries back even further.
Compared with the political attention that immigrants receive, there’s not much public debate about foreign nationals covered under TPS. DHS chooses TPS countries based on temporary conditions, including armed conflict, an environmental or public health disaster, or other “extraordinary” circumstances. A person who is found to be eligible for TPS cannot be removed from the United States and is permitted to work and travel.
In Haiti’s case, a letter from James McCament, head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, proclaimed that the situation in the country had improved enough to warrant sending tens of thousands of Haitians back to the country. In response, Haiti’s new government is pleading with the United States to extend TPS, arguing that the country — still reeling from Hurricane Matthew and a cholera outbreak that killed more than 9,000 people — is not in a position to absorb a rapid influx of deportees. In a letter to DHS Secretary John F. Kelly, Haiti’s ambassador Paul G. Altidor wrote that “allowing TPS to expire before Haiti can absorb and support their return will cause an immediate increase in poverty in Haiti, as thousands of households will no longer have an economic lifeline.” (Indeed the Haitian diaspora in the United States sends about $1 billion a year back to Haiti in remittances.) “It is in the mutual interest of our two governments to renew TPS for Haitians for at least another 18 months,” the letter concludes. The TPS designation expires in July.
Extending TPS for Haitians has important implications for other groups in the United States who have fled from crisis. Some 13 countries are currently designated for TPS status, including Honduras, El Salvador, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Should the Trump administration end TPS for Haiti, other groups can reasonably fear losing their TPS status as well. If 60,000 Haitians are deported, it would serve as yet another harsh signal from the administration to those around the world seeking shelter that they are not welcome here.
“We are not asking for an indefinite renewal of TPS,” Altidor told me over the phone. “But the extension would give us time to get the country back on track to reconstructing itself.” Altidor said he was engaging at the highest levels of the Haitian government on the issue, including with President Jovenel Moise. Altidor met with Kelly on Monday. A decision on TPS for Haitians could come as soon as early as May 23.
Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, who has been vocal about the TPS issue in the New Yorker, spoke to me from Miami after attending a rally in support of a TPS extension for Haitians. “Every day that goes by, people grow more and more worried.” she said. “Over and over, the promises that are made to Haiti are not kept. There is always a vulnerability in Haiti, with erosion, lack of land cover, and natural disasters. We are constantly having to negotiate our own migration. The Haitian community in South Florida was already feeling vulnerable after the election, after the tough talk on immigration — not just from the president but from Secretary Kelly. The TPS issue is just another sad layer on top of that.”
Haitians at least have support across Congress: A number of U.S. senators have sent letters pressing for an extension of TPS, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has asked the Trump administration to extend protection for Haitians under the program.
“Whether you vote for me or not, I really want to be your biggest champion,” Trump said to Haitians while campaigning against Hillary Clinton. Now, his administration has the opportunity to prove it and extend TPS — and relief — for Haitians.