Immigration advocates rally in New York on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017, to protest the decision from the Department of Homeland Security to terminate Temporary Protected Status for people from Haiti. (Mark Lennihan/AP Images)

Since 2010, thousands of Haitian immigrants who migrated to the United States have been allowed to stay in the country without fear because President Barack Obama granted Haiti eligibility for Temporary Protected Status. The protection is given to countries that have experienced political or environmental catastrophe such as armed conflict or natural disaster.

But the Department of Homeland Security announced Monday that it will terminate temporary protections for Haiti beginning Jan. 1, 2018, followed by an 18-month grace period. That means that nearly 60,000 Haitians will have until July 22, 2019, to leave the country they call home.

“This is criminal,” says Farah Larrieux of Miami. Larrieux came to the U.S. in 2005 and qualified for TPS in 2010. She says the decision by DHS to terminate TPS puts thousands at risk of losing everything they’ve worked for and could separate families.

Haiti was granted temporary protection after a catastrophic earthquake in 2010 killed more than 200,000 people and demolished most of the country’s infrastructure. As part of TPS, Haitian immigrants are eligible to stay in the U.S., obtain work permits and send remittances to assist in Haiti’s redevelopment.

Marleine Bastien of Haitian Women of Miami (Kenya Downs)

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The program does not offer a pathway to citizenship or permanent residency.

“This is a issue of human rights,” says Marleine Bastien, a social worker and executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, a community organization that advocates for South Florida’s Haitian community—the largest in the country. “You’re talking about removing people and sending them into conditions that may put their lives in danger.”

In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said, “Significant steps have been taken to improve the stability and quality of life for Haitian citizens, and Haiti is able to safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens.”

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Larrieux disagrees. “Haiti is still suffering from a cholera outbreak and deadly hurricanes that struck in the years since. Plus, there’s still political violence,” she says. “You’re trying to send people with little or no connection to Haiti anymore back to the same dangerous conditions they were escaping from.”

Many TPS holders already have deep roots in their U.S. communities and play prominent roles as business owners, health care providers and service workers. According to the Journal on Migration and Human Security, there are more than 30,000 Haitian TPS recipients living in the country, primarily in South Florida. They are also parents to nearly 20,000 U.S.-born children.

Seventy percent of Haitian TPS holders are employed, and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (pdf) estimates that losing their work authorization could result in a nearly $7 billion reduction (pdf) in Social Security and Medicare contributions over a decade.

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“We must protect our Haitian neighbors and friends because they are vital members of our communities and play an important part in our economies, especially in places like the Miami area in Florida and as I’ve experienced with my constituents in Brooklyn’s 9th District,” Democratic Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York said in a phone interview prior to Homeland Security’s announcement.

After the announcement, Clarke called the administration’s decision “cruel and unconscionable.”

“When did moral decency and compassion for others become a partisan issue?” she tweeted.

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Last week, Clarke—along with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)—introduced bipartisan legislation, the ASPIRE-TPS Act of 2017 (pdf), which would permanently resolve the status of the nearly 300,000 TPS recipients from Haiti, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Central America. With the bill’s passage, recipients who’ve been in the country at least five years would be eligible to apply for permanent residency under a new protected status.

Haiti and Central American nations like Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras are some of this hemisphere’s most economically depressed, politically unstable and violent countries. These nations also share unique histories of U.S. involvement in their political and socioeconomic development that Bastien says cannot be ignored. The U.S. occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934 and has played substantial military and financial roles in previous dictatorships and coups d’état.

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“You cannot try to limit migration without taking responsibility for creating conditions that force people from their homelands in the first place. You can’t have it both ways.”

—Marleine Bastien, executive director of haitian women of miami

“The U.S. government aligned itself with a bourgeoisie that continues to exploit Haitians,” she says. “You cannot try to limit migration without taking responsibility for creating conditions that force people from their homelands in the first place. You can’t have it both ways. ”

Bastien says that’s why many Haitian TPS holders are those who migrated even before the earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010. Some recipients fled violence and political instability years before. Bastien says that many of her clients have been in the country for decades and have American-born children.

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Rony Ponthieux is one of them. A nurse practitioner living in Miami Gardens, he and his wife qualified for TPS after coming to the U.S. in 1999 following an unsuccessful attempt to seek asylum. He says Haitians are the engine that keeps a lot of communities, especially underprivileged minority areas, running.

“We are living the American dream,” he says. “We have houses, jobs, are providing for our families and sending money home to help our homelands rebuild. I don’t understand how we can be deported when we are doing nothing wrong.”

The pressure is on for Congress to reach a deal on legislation before the July 22, 2019, cutoff. For now, the most immediate fear for the thousands of Haitian immigrants is figuring out what happens next. Ponthieux fears returning to a country so dangerous it required him to flee, and he is faced with either becoming undocumented, moving to Canada, or uprooting his young daughter and teenage son—both American citizens—to a country they’ve never known.

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“They have never been to Haiti and don’t know Haiti except for what they see on TV. They are American, like everybody else,” Ponthieux says. “So what are we supposed to do, leave them behind?”