58,000 Haitians in U.S. May Lose Post-Earthquake Protections


A report by Lizette Alvarez for the New York Times.

Betty Versannes is one of the lucky ones: When a powerful earthquake buried Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan 12, 2010, she was here, a world away. Her sister and cousin died in the rubble. Her other relatives moved into tents, and some live there still, in a country that is far from recovered.

Days later, recognizing the depth of Haiti’s misery and the complexity of the rebuilding effort, the United States government extended a seldom-used lifeline to Haitians in the United States — temporary protected status, or T.P.S. The program allows people, like Ms. Versannes, who were visiting or were living here illegally before the earthquake to live and work in the United States until conditions back home improved.

More than 58,000 Haitians registered for the program, many in South Florida, which has the largest Haitian community in the country.

That safeguard could end soon. By Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly is expected to announce whether to let Haitians’ temporary protected status expire on July 22 or extend it again. (If he does nothing, it extends six months automatically.) By law, the decision should be based solely on conditions in Haiti — the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere — and its ability to absorb a large wave of returnees, not on immigration policy.

“It would be a big mistake,” Ms. Versannes said about the possibility that she and others would lose their temporary protected status. “Haiti is not fine. Everybody knows that.”

Ms. Versannes has reason to worry. In April, James W. McCament, the acting director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, wrote a memo to Mr. Kelly recommending that he “terminate Haiti’s T.P.S. designation” because conditions related to the earthquake “have been largely ameliorated,” according to a copy obtained by The Miami Herald. Mr. McCament recommended delaying the deadline until Jan. 22, which would give Haitians time to return home.

The same determination will soon play out for foreigners in the program from nine other countries that, at some point, were ravaged by natural disaster, disease or civil strife, including Honduras, Somalia and Syria. Haitians are the first under the Trump administration to confront an expiration date.

The prospect that 58,000 Haitians could be forced to return en masse after spending more than seven years in the United States has raised a rare bipartisan outcry among state and federal lawmakers in Florida, including Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican. Elected officials from Massachusetts, New York and Utah have also weighed in, as have numerous faith-based refugee or aid groups.

Even Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, an early Republican ally of President Trump’s, backs the idea of extending the program. He recently discussed the issue with Mr. Kelly, according to his chief of staff.

Haiti is still reeling not just from the earthquake but also from a cholera epidemic that killed 9,000, a long drought and last year’s Hurricane Matthew, the biggest storm to hit Haiti in 50 years. The Category 4 hurricane smashed Haiti’s southwestern coast and wiped out homes, roads, crops, livestock and fish stocks on the southern coast, exacerbating food shortages throughout the country.

The country has also been rocked by years of political instability. Haiti recently elected a businessman, Jovenel Moïse, as president.

Ambassador Paul G. Altidor said he and Haiti’s foreign minister had met with Mr. Kelly on Monday to ask for an 18-month extension and had come away relatively optimistic. They argued that Haiti’s new government was just now developing a plan for the country and cautioned that sending 58,000 people home could prompt panic among dependent relatives in Haiti, forcing some to take to the seas for the United States.

“I am feeling somewhat positive that there might be an extension,” Mr. Altidor said. But, he added, it may not stretch to 18 months.

Some lawmakers and activists said they feared the Trump administration was drafting reasons to end the designation for Haitians. Last month, the policy director for the Department of Homeland Security sent emails to her staff requesting criminal data on Haitians in the program, among other things. The emails were published by The Associated Press. Applicants with criminal histories are not eligible for temporary protected status.

“The administration was probably looking for any excuse to deny and reject T.P.S.,” said Marleine Bastien, the executive director of Haitian Women of Miami.

Joanne F. Talbot, a Homeland Security spokeswoman, said the decision on T.P.S. would be made solely on “a thorough assessment of the conditions” in Haiti.

The most recent report on conditions in Haiti was finished in December, before Mr. Trump took office, by Citizenship and Immigration Services. It concluded that the country was still vulnerable, despite some progress. That month, Secretary of State John F. Kerry recommended continuing the designation.

But critics of the program want Congress to overhaul it, saying designations were meant to last six to 18 months, at most. They have lasted well beyond that in some cases. Hondurans registered nearly two decades ago after Hurricane Mitch. Somalis got the designation in 1991. (On the other hand, the 2014 designations for Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, ravaged by Ebola, will expire on Sunday, a decision that preceded the Trump administration.)

“T.P.S. is just a catastrophe of abuse and politicization,” said Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors stricter controls on immigration. “Why not call it permanent protected status?”

Mr. Stein said he feared that conditions in Haiti, a perpetually troubled country, would never be good enough to end its designation. “The argument that Haiti is not optimally flourishing is really kind of open-ended,” he added.

With only days to go before a decision, Ms. Versannes, 44, who is now married and pregnant, and who has a 5-year-old Miami-born daughter, can think of little else. If her status changes, it will upend the life she has built a few miles from Little Haiti. She will lose her job as a nurse’s assistant and her ability to renew her driver’s license. She will be forced to contemplate leading an invisible life.

Worse, though, is that the money, food and clothes she sends to her three children and mother in Haiti will dry up.

“I left Haiti to try to care for my family and my children,” said Ms. Versannes, who arrived here with a visa. Now, she has no home in Haiti. “That earthquake, nobody has fixed what it did — nobody can.”

“I hope Trump can touch his heart to Haitians and Haiti,” she said, referring TO Mr. Trump’s vow to the community.

In September, in the throes of the campaign, Mr. Trump sat down with a small group of Haitian Americans in Little Haiti here and made them a promise. “Whether you vote for me or not, I really want to be your biggest champion,” Mr. Trump said.

The archbishop of Miami, Thomas G. Wenski, who spent 18 years as pastor of Little Haiti’s largest church, said the fact that so many Haitians here helped Haitians at home survive was no small matter. Remittances from the United States make up 25 percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.

“Most are gainfully employed here and are in a position to help their relatives back home. If these people go back they won’t be able to do that,” he said. “It’s hard to understand how Haiti could absorb a massive return of some 58,000 Haitians.”

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