Edwidge Danticat: A HARROWING TURNING POINT FOR HAITIAN IMMIGRANTS

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An article by Edwidge Danticat for the New Yorker.

D.—he asked that I not use his name—moved to the United States from Haiti with his parents in 2001, when he was nine years old. They travelled from Port-au-Prince on tourist visas, and then stayed beyond the authorized time period because of political instability in Haiti. D. attended school in Miami.

In high school he played football and had a 4.1 G.P.A. He completed all of his coursework, including all the Advanced Placement classes offered at his school, by the end of his junior year, and graduated in the top three per cent of his class. He applied and was accepted to Florida Memorial University in 2009, hoping to study engineering, but because he was undocumented he did not qualify for the full-ride scholarship he was offered. He tried other schools, including the local community college, but did not qualify for loans or in-state tuition. Instead, D. saved up for a paralegal-certificate course by working as a parking attendant at a Miami Beach hotel during the day, then at the hotel’s front desk at night. He studied and wrote papers during his night shifts. “It was like having two and a half jobs,” he told me recently. “I was only sleeping every other day. People kept telling me, ‘You’re so bright, why aren’t you in college?’ They didn’t realize that I wanted more than anything to go to college. I just didn’t have the opportunity.”

In 2010, after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing an estimated three hundred thousand people and leaving 1.5 million homeless, Haitian community leaders, including many Miami-based advocates, appealed to the U.S. government for temporary protected status, which was granted nine days after the earthquake. Temporary protected status, or T.P.S., is designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security in cases where a country’s nationals are unable to return safely or when the country is incapable of receiving them due to armed conflicts, environmental disasters, epidemics, or other “extraordinary” conditions.

T.P.S. is granted for eighteen months at a time and is renewable at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security, at times in consultation with the State Department and the Secretary of State. T.P.S. does not offer a path to citizenship, but it does allow recipients to apply for a work permit and a driver’s license, and prevents them from being deported.

Haiti is one of thirteen countries that have been granted temporary protected status. The others are El Salvador, Guinea, Honduras, Liberia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, and Syria. Of the three hundred thousand foreign nationals who are covered by T.P.S., approximately fifty thousand are Haitian and many, like D., have been living in the United States since before the 2010 earthquake. They qualified for T.P.S. because conditions in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake made their return hazardous, but also because of a raging cholera epidemic that was introduced by Nepalese United Nations peacekeepers, in 2010, and has killed nine thousand Haitians and sickened eight hundred thousand.

The last time T.P.S. was extended for Haitians was in August, 2015, during the Obama Administration. Citing conditions “that prevent Haitian nationals (or aliens having no nationality who last habitually resided in Haiti) from returning to Haiti in safety,” Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security at the time, renewed the designation through July 22, 2017. Now it is up to the Trump Administration’s Homeland Security Secretary, John F. Kelly, to decide, by May 23rd, whether he will renew T.P.S. or terminate it, thus making the fifty thousand Haitians currently protected vulnerable to deportation.

Recently, James McCament, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, recommended that Kelly terminate, allowing six months—until January, 2018—as a grace period for “an orderly transition” toward either voluntary return or deportation. The Haitian government has stated that the country is not ready to receive a sudden influx of returnees. In a May 3rd interview with Le Nouvelliste, one of the country’s daily newspapers, Haiti’s new President, Jovenel Moïse, declared that he was in favor of T.P.S. renewal given the slow progress Haiti has made in rebuilding since the earthquake. Haiti’s most recent natural disaster, 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, caused $2.7 billion in damages, equivalent to thirty-two per cent of Haiti’s gross domestic product. Hurricane Matthew killed more than a thousand people and devastated Haiti’s southern peninsula, destroying most of that region’s infrastructure, homes, crops, and livestock, which has led to a dearth of housing and increased food insecurity. “We believe this is not the time to welcome our brothers and sisters back because it will aggravate our already precarious situation,” Haiti’s foreign-affairs minister, Antonio Rodrigue, told Le Nouvelliste. “An extension of the TPS will give the government some respite to put in place projects to improve living conditions in the country.”

Republican and Democratic lawmakers, faith-based organizations, and unions, including one representing workers at the Walt Disney Company, in Orlando, have also urged Kelly to renew T.P.S. The editorial pages of major U.S. newspapers—among them the Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Miami Herald—have echoed these pleas, urging Kelly to consider that sending fifty thousand Haitians back, as the Miami Herald editorial board put it, will harm Haiti more than it will benefit the United States. According to the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Haitians with T.P.S. collectively earn two hundred and eighty million dollars a year in wages, and contribute about thirty-five million dollars annually to Social Security. Part of their wages are also used for remittances, which are vital to family members in Haiti as well as the country’s fragile economy.

In keeping with the Trump Administration’s emphatic focus on immigrant crime, part of Kelly’s decision-making process seems to involve looking at how many Haitians on T.P.S. have committed crimes or used public services for which they’re not eligible, a signal that the Secretary might be looking for some justification to end the program, an outcome which would be disastrous for D. and thousands of others.

I asked D., who said he wakes up every morning feeling like he is in limbo, what he would say to Secretary Kelly and the Trump Administration if he could. I have known him since he was in high school, and I have never heard so much worry in his voice. Like so many other immigrants who have made a life in this country, who have bought homes and started businesses, who are parents of U.S.-born children, he is living in constant fear of being plucked out of his life at a moment’s notice.

If his T.P.S. is revoked, D. said, he will not be able to work. He will be too terrified to leave his house, for fear of being deported. He will not be able to complete the college degree that he is working to pay for himself. He would remind Secretary Kelly and the Trump Administration that T.P.S. recipients, from Haiti and from other countries, are “fully invested, fully committed to this country,” and in many cases have nowhere else to go. “We have drive, we have desire, we work hard,” he said. “We have learned a lot here that we want to use for the good of this country. So many of us have already made a difference here and so many of us still can.” Extending temporary protected status, he added, is the sensible thing to do.

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