Waiting in Limbo: Haitian migrants take note of opportunities, but slow pace leaves jobs unfilled

About 200 people gathered for the Solidarity with Haiti demonstration at John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Downtown Boston in Oct. 2021 to protest the inhumane treatment of Haitian immigrants at the Texas border. Jesse Costa/WBUR photo

Nearly every day, scores of Haitian men and women, some of whom walked thousands of miles to seek asylum in the United States, make their way to a modest office in Mattapan Square, the headquarters of the nonprofit Immigrant Family and Service Institute (IFSI).

The migrants, who have been granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) by the US government, are looking for help getting jobs as they navigate an arduous process that is beset by maddening delays and absurd anomalies. Many of them spend long hours inside the IFSI office, waiting to get guidance from staffers who are themselves frustrated by the slow pace of the federal bureaucracy.

“It is frustrating,” said David Dorvilien, a 30-something man who sat in the bustling office on a recent Monday morning. He wants to weep when he recalls his family’s 18-month trek by foot, bus, and boat from Brazil to the United States border. A native of Haiti, Dorvilien says he has plenty of job opportunities here in Boston, but, like many of his fellow asylum seekers, his TPS status does not include permission to work. For that, he has to secure a special permit — called an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).

The Reporter's View: President Biden should expedite permits for migrant workers with TPS

He has now been waiting for more than a year to get that permission.

“They had a job fair with Amazon here at IFSI and I didn’t come because I know they will ask for my legal documents, and I don’t have them,” Dorvilien said. “I know they had jobs available. I thought it would be much, much easier to get the paperwork when I came here. I never thought it would be like this. I have hope it will change. I’m still glad I left Brazil.”

David Dorvilien recounts his story of traveling by boat, by foot, and by bus to get from Brazil to the United States in 2020 and 2021. Seth Daniel photo

Royal Caneus, 41, tells a similar story. He’s a “guy who gets things done” and is ready to do whatever job he can find once he gets his paperwork. But he worries that may never come.

“I did not think this would happen,” he said in noting that he arrived from Brazil in 2019. “I’m seeking refuge here from something very dangerous and in May I’m here four years and can’t get the right paperwork for me to work.”

For many Haitian migrants who arrived from South America and Mexico, they now find themselves stuck in limbo instead of the land of opportunity.
The problem is national in scope. Officials with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) blame the long wait on labor shortages, as well as a backlog of applications left to them by former President Donald Trump’s administration.

A spokesperson for USCIS told the Reporter that “adjudicators evaluate each EAD application fairly, humanely, and efficiently on a case-by-case basis, and the agency remains committed to upholding America’s promise as a nation of welcome and possibility with fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve.”

The spokesperson said new policies have been adopted under the Biden administration “to reduce both the number of pending cases and overall processing times the agency inherited from the prior administration.”

The agency’s “backlog reduction goals” include making changes to underlying procedures to achieve “new efficiencies while ensuring the integrity and security of the immigration system,” the spokesperson said.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who co-chairs the House’s Haiti Caucus, is one of a number of leaders who have grown impatient with the long delays.

“I am disappointed by the ongoing backlog of TPS applications that has hindered so many of our Haitian neighbors from living a dignified and stable life,” said Pressley. “Undoubtedly, US policies regarding the Haitian people have perpetuated anti-Blackness and exacerbated injustice. It is past time to prioritize humanitarian relief. I won’t stop fighting for a just immigration and foreign policy.”

Boston City Councillor Ruthzee Louijeune, who is Haitian-American, has been hearing from many constituents, including Boston Haitian families who have been hosting asylum seekers desperate to get work papers. She is urging USCIS to simplify forms, hire additional staff, and create more avenues for expedited processing.

“For years, they’ve been sounding the clarion call that people ready to work are unable to work because of a lack of care and resources devoted to processing applications,” Louijeune said. “Considering that places like Boston are facing labor shortages, shortages historically addressed by new immigration, it is incumbent upon our government to do much, much better, for the health of our economy and for the well-being of asylees.”

IFSI Director Dr. Geralde Gabeau said the organization served more than 8,000 people – most of them Haitian – last year. The non-profit says it has seen 1,220 people who arrived in the Boston area in just the last three months of 2022. While other services are granted quickly, she said, the work permit problem persists, leaving thousands trapped in hotels, private homes, and family shelters waiting to get their lives started here.

“We have people who applied almost a year ago,” she said. “We applied for their work permit, and they’re still waiting. The federal government told us there is a backlog and they are working on it, but we know we need to do better to get those permits out. This is blocking us at so many levels and there’s so much we could have done for the families that we cannot do because they don’t have their work authorization.”

Dr. Gabeau said most of the migrants could be helping relieve high-profile labor shortages in hospitals, nursing homes, construction sites, and school bus transportation. Instead, they find themselves sitting on the sidelines.

“When we were making plans with the city and the state to place families, our idea was we would place them, and do the work permit, they would find a job and very soon they would be on their own, so they don’t have to rely on us for a long period of time. All of those people here are very young, dynamic, and ready to work. There are jobs out there. The jobs are not lacking.”

Rev. Dieufort “Keke” Fleurissaint, a Mattapan pastor who helps IFSI assist the migrants, said it’s sad that after harrowing and heartbreaking journeys, paperwork has become the latest obstacle. He has personally written more than 150 letters of support to the US government in an effort to help speed along the process.

“So many families find themselves now in this predicament – willing and able to work but not being able to access job opportunities or learn new skills to secure permanent employment,” he said. “They thought things would be much better. They travelled a long time and thought America would be the land of opportunity and it hasn’t been the case.”

Even more frustrating, the TPS and EAD available for Haitian migrants runs out on Friday of this week (Feb. 3). That means anyone who finally gets authorization now will immediately have to renew their TPS and work permit. The problem is that until last week the federal government hadn’t spelled out how to renew.

“No one really knows right now,” added Fleurissaint, noting that thousands were waiting for clear directions that only became available on Jan. 25.
All of which is a mystery to David Dorvilien, who fled Haiti after losing everything in the 2010 earthquake and re-settled first in Brazil. His family then braved the much-chronicled passage over the sea from Colombia to Panama, and ultimately to Mexico.

“While we were on the small boat, water started coming into the boat,” he said. “My wife was pregnant, and it was very scary. We had to take the water out of the boat very fast to keep it floating. It was so difficult because there was no anchor. They hit a rock, and everyone had to jump off the boat to save their lives.”

Once on shore, they walked 13 days through jungles to get to Panama. They then travelled by bus to Mexico, where they stalled out for six months and where his wife gave birth to their second child.

Dorvilien won TPS status in September 2021 and immediately applied for his EAD, thinking it would only take a few months. In the meantime, he said, his wife and oldest child both received authorizations, but he and their one-year-old baby are stalled. They have been asked for more information.
“I’m not sure what other information I can provide for the baby that they don’t have,” he said.

Despite everything, Dorvilien is grateful to have found some form of refuge in Boston. “I was raised in a very poor family in Haiti and my dad had cardiac arrest and became paralyzed,” he recounted. “There was no hope for us there. Some days you could find food to eat and the next day there was no meal in sight. I didn’t want my children to have that life. I’m worried for them because I have no legal status and I hope things can change. It’s still much better for you to suffer than to watch your children suffer. I still have hope for this place.”

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