50,000 Haitians will get to stay in the U.S. – but for only six more months

Haitians across Miami are scared in a way they haven’t been since 2010, when an earthquake ravaged their home country but also brought them sympathy and a special protected immigrant status from the U.S. government.

We met one of the roughly 50,000 now facing a forced return home. He’s 30 years old, and has three kids, aged eight, six, and nine weeks. Though his children are citizens, he doesn’t want their names used, either. He was born in Haiti, grew up in Port-au-Prince, and came to the states in 2005, at the age of 18, to seek a better life.

“Life in Haiti wasn’t as good. You were up in the morning, you don’t have a job, you can’t go to work, you could spend your whole entire morning with no food, no breakfast, no lunch, until the night time, and when you finally get something it’s not much.”

An economic migrant, he overstayed his visa in the U.S. and was ordered to leave in 2006. He spent the next four years laying low in Miami.

“I was in hiding. I stayed out of trouble,” he says.

And then a catastrophic magnitude-seven earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, killing some estimated 160,000 people and leaving swathes of the country reduced to rubble. Tent cities sprang up almost overnight in Port-au-Prince, filled with the newly homeless  in a city that already included vast slums. A cholera epidemic broke out. The nation’s presidential palace crumbled. A symbol of the country’s halting recovery, it has yet to be rebuilt.

Citing the obvious and extraordinary chaos, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano granted Haitians living in the U.S. Temporary Protected Status. He applied.

TPS is an immigration category extended by the US government to nationals of a country affected by extraordinary events, like wars, earthquakes, or devastating hurricanes. It’s the government’s way of saying “OK, things are way too messed up for us to send you back.”

The program for Haitians has been renewed every 18 months for the past seven years, but the Trump administration has come flat out and said they want to end the policy. Documents leaked to the Associated Press showed the Department of Homeland Security searching for data on crimes committed by people on TPS, rather than focusing on in-country conditions, which is what the decision is supposed to be based on.

On Monday, the administration set an expiration date. They extended TPS for only six months, and told Haitians to use that time to prepare to leave.

Making temporary permanent

Temporary protected status meant that he – even though he had a standing deportation order – wouldn’t be forced to immediately go home. It meant that he could get a license and a work permit. It also meant he could start sending money back to his family in Haiti.

“When my mom passed away, she left three kids down in Haiti, and I’m the one that’s taking care of them. Every 7th of the month, I have to send at least $200 to them.”

There are more than 300,000 people in the United States on TPS. Haitians make up some 50,000, but by far the largest number are Salvadorans, at almost 195,000. Salvadorans have had TPS since 2001, when three powerful earthquakes struck the country in less than a month. Their remittances are often a lifeline for their families back home

Though they may have been here for more than a decade and a half, the status of Salvadorans under TPS, along with that of some 57,000 Hondurans, will be up for renewal this coming winter, and the prospects look grim. Immigration lawyers recommend that anyone on TPS with the ability to apply for any kind of regular status do so immediately.

“This should be a major wakeup call to Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Hondurans who live on TPS. They can only assume that their status is going to expire as well.” says Michael Murray, an immigration lawyer with several clients on the program. He explains that there are various avenues open those on TPS who didn’t have standing removal orders when the program was implemented, including asylum applications. He notes that even those with removal orders still have options*.

Randolph McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal services, takes it one step further. “I don’t think anything is going to change until the people who support these policies start losing elections, so people should naturalize.”


Short-lived relief

The prospect of returning to Haiti doesn’t scare him. “I don’t fear to go back home but my kids are gonna be suffering. They aren’t gonna get the education they need without a father.” His prospects for fighting deportation are better than most. Even if TPS gets canceled, he still has a shot at naturalization through his wife, an American Citizen.

But not all will be so lucky. Michael Murray estimates that, based on his volume of clients, about one-third of the people on TPS will be left without relief.*

Though temporary protected status is meant to be just that – temporary – community activists contend that Haiti is in no shape to accept 50,000 returning nationals, and won’t be for a long time. Asked what fate would await Haitians returning to their homeland, Marleine Bastien, director of local non-profit Haitian Women’s organization FANM, does not hesitate to offer a comparison.

She points to the 65,000 Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent who were repatriated to Haiti by the Dominican Republic that Island country’s neighbor in 2015.

“Those people are living in inhuman conditions at the border since the anti-immigrant campaign intensified in the Dominican Republic, left to fend for themselves, living in squalor. Is this the condition we want to send US born children too?”

Populations of repatriated Haitians remain on the border in ramshackle camps, suffering from malnutrition and dying of cholera. To date, the Haitian government has done little to help.

The short six-month extension for Haitians on TPS also puts into question the economic contribution the 300,000 individuals on the program make to the United States Economy. A study conducted by the Immigrant Legal Resources Center estimated a 45.2 billion dollar reduction to GDP over a decade should the program be ended, which is the equivalent of losing the state of Montana’s yearly contribution to America’s gross domestic product.

Let’s do this again in six months

The political effort to save the 50,000 Haitians on TPS has been nothing short of extraordinary. Florida’s entire congressional delegation advocated on the program’s behalf. Gov. Rick Scott personally raised the issue in a meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Kelly, and defended the program.

The success of the lobbying effort can be thought of as a measure of the burgeoning political influence of the Haitian-American community. “We started off as boat people, now we’re vote people,” quips Marleine Bastien.

According to Secretary Kelly, The six-month extension is designed to “allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to obtain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure.”

Faced with the prospect of forced exit, he dwells on those who depend on him. “I gotta be a man to a whole lotta people. If anything happens to me, I’m not the only one that’s gonna be hurt.  What about my kids, my siblings back home?”


*Article has changed to reflect the fact that those on TPS with removal orders still have options for remaining in the country should the program end, and that the 1/3 estimate of those without recourse was based on Mr. Murray’s volume of clients.

By Mario Ariza
Mario Alejandro Ariza is a Dominican immigrant who grew up in Miami. A Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Miami’s Master in Fine Arts program, he is currently working on a nonfiction book about South Florida and Sea Level Rise. On a day with a good swell and northeasterly breezes, you’ll find him surfing on South Beach (yes, there’s actually surfing Miami.)