Haitian diaspora waits on US call on immigrants’ protected status

An upcoming deadline to renew a temporary residency program affecting more than 50,000 Haitians in the US has sparked a flurry of action by city and state representatives. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) was originally granted to Haitian immigrants following the 2010 earthquake and humanitarian crisis in the Caribbean country. TPS requires renewal every eighteen months and the Trump administration has until next Tuesday (May 23) to decide whether or not to continue the program.

Boston City Council votes to support TPS extention

Until that decision is made, an entire diaspora hangs in the balance.

Boston is home to some 16,000 Haitian immigrants; it’s the third largest such population in the country. In response to the White House’s ongoing silence on the issue, several local lawmakers have spoken up on the impact of this decision. On Monday, Mayor Marty Walsh sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging the two officials to support the extension of TPS for Haitian residents.
“The Haitian diaspora has enriched and strengthened our City in immeasurable ways…. I urge you to exercise your discretion to extend TPS for Haitians until they can safely return to Haiti,” Mayor Walsh’s letter read in part.

One critical question the federal government will answer with this decision is whether or not Haiti now has stable enough conditions for current TPS residents to thrive when they return home. Brian Concannon, the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, expressed doubt that sending thousands of Haitians back to the country would be a good thing for the US to do. “The people who are going back, most of them haven’t been to Haiti in over seven years. It’s going to be difficult for them to reinsert themselves and it’s a particularly difficult time in Haiti,” he said.

The last TPS renewal for Haitians was approved in 2015, less than a year before Hurricane Mathew once again inflicted widespread damage to the country. According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than 1.5 million people on the island were still “food insecure” in March of this year.

A letter from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry that was addressed to Secretary Kelly and published on Tuesday emphasized the continuing concerns over what Haitian TPS residents would return to should to the program be terminated. The document listed health concerns that are threatening thousands of lives in the recovering nation.

“Haiti's medical system remains unable to adequately address the nation's public health crises. The cholera epidemic continues to spread,” the letter read in part. “In addition, health care providers have seen an unprecedented rise in cases of microcephaly, a birth condition linked to the Zika virus, but hospitals are not equipped to test for or prevent Zika.”

Assessing Haiti’s liveability hasn’t been the only priority for the Trump administration leading up to the TPS decision. According to the Associated Press, White House officials were asked in emails to collect crime data on Haitian immigrants in the US, despite the fact that TPS specifically disqualifies anyone who has committed a criminal offense.

“Haitians are very troubled by the Trump administration’s efforts to find out about criminal activity among the Haitian community,” said Concannon. “That is completely irrelevant because you can’t get TPS if you have a criminal record.”

The administration also asked immigration officials to investigate TPS residents’ use of public benefits. TPS stipulates, however, that protected residents are not eligible for welfare benefits. Concannon believes these federal inquiries signal political motives behind the government’s decision-making. “What we are afraid of,” he said, “is that the Trump administration is going to use that to try to demonize the Haitian community as a whole as a pretext for not renewing TPS.”

Bay State Congressman Seth Moulton echoed this concern, arguing in a written statement that the Trump administration’s actions fit into a broader anti-immigrant narrative. “Given the sheer disregard for immigrants that this administration has shown,” he wrote, “these orders are, sadly, not surprising.”