During the Congressional Black Caucus' meeting with President Obama last week, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) handed the president a letter. The message, signed by more than 50 members of Congress, requested more time for displaced Haitians to legally stay in the United States. On Tuesday the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would both extend and expand the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) of Haitians, many of whom fled their country after 2010's devastating earthquake.
Last year, immediately after the earthquake plunged Haiti into further despair, the Obama administration granted TPS for Haitian people who had already been living in the U.S. illegally, suspending their deportations. So far at least 48,000 have been granted TPS, which allows refuge for nationals of countries that suffered a natural disaster or civil strife such as war.
That designation, however, was scheduled to expire in July. The extension permits them to live and work in the U.S. for another 18 months. Additionally, now Haitians who came to the U.S. up to one year after the 2010 earthquake are also eligible for temporary protected status.
"Today's announcement is nothing short of a lifeline for tens of thousands of Haitians living in the U.S.," Wilson said in a statement on Tuesday. The Root caught up with the freshman congresswoman — who spoke to us from Vienna, where she was participating in a European congressional delegation with fellow members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — about having her request granted and where we go from here.
The Root: You appealed for an extension of Haitian protected status at the CBC meeting with President Obama last week. What did he say to you then?
Frederica Wilson: We were all sitting at a large conference table when he first came in, and he walked around the room to each participant. When he got to me, I said, "I brought you a letter regarding temporary protected status. I want it extended, and I want to also include the people who came to America after the earthquake." He looked me dead in the eyes and said, "Okay. We'll take care of that."
Here's what I think happened. About three weeks ago, I met him when he came to speak at the commencement of Miami Dade College, the largest community college in the nation. Miami is a multicultural hub, where people from all nations live. So at the graduation they had a parade of flags, representing the different birth countries of each student. When they got to Haiti, the auditorium just went ballistic. After hearing all that cheering, I think for the president it brought to mind the hope and pride of Haiti.
TR: You didn't have any sign that the administration had already been working on this?
FW: I'm sure the State Department had that as one of their "to-do" things. But my fear was that the deadline was fast approaching. I had written letters to both Secretary Clinton and Secretary Napolitano when I first got to Congress, and I didn't hear any response. That's when I decided to get the letter to the president, and I got as many people as I could on the floor to sign on. I hadn't heard one thing about the issue until now.
I was out of the country when I received the news, and I was just ecstatic because I know the importance of it. I know the people with nothing to return to, who are depending on this extension, and especially the people in Haiti who benefit from the remittances from their relatives in the United States who can work and send money back home.
TR: Meanwhile, much of Haiti remains in abysmal condition. Is an 18-month extension enough time for the country to recover, and prepare for the return of these citizens?
FW: I don't think Haiti will be in condition to receive any deportees in 18 months. I think it's a great reprieve on the part of the president to grant Haiti that extension. Hopefully by the end of it, we'll have a new comprehensive immigration policy that will encompass all immigrants.
TR: That's one reason TPS gets criticized, because it often involves multiple extensions that make it not-so-temporary. In some cases, what was meant to be a two-year reprieve can stretch to 10 years. Do you think that detracts from the program's credibility?
FW: Well, we're in a time when the word "immigration" is like profanity. It's a word that causes so much tension in Washington. So we do the best that we can to help people. We do what we can, even if it's extending TPS little by little, until we get it right.
TR: Are you finding that your Haitian constituents with TPS would rather pursue permanent residence instead of returning to Haiti?
FW: Some do and some don't. Haiti just passed a constitution that will grant Haitian Americans dual citizenship, and some of them are looking forward to running for office in Haiti and doing other things to help rebuild the country. They're all anxious to see Haiti recover.
TR: Still, your hope is that this Congress will deliver an immigration reform bill. Why do you think the two parties can come together and do that?
FW: Instead of allowing this patchwork of immigration laws to spring up across the nation — like in Arizona, and now Florida's trying one — I think Republicans will see that a comprehensive immigration law is better. President Obama is clear on the issue of immigration reform, and I think he's going to get his wish.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.