Humanitarian parole offers hope to Haitians waiting to flee violence

Hananiah John Pierre-Louis and Keren Cezar at their home in Dorchester. Jesse Costa/WBUR photo

Keren Cezar was out having dinner with friends in Boston last month when she got a terrifying call from Haiti. Her mother was on the phone in a panic: Local gangsters were rampaging close to her home and had burned down a nearby police station.

“It was this kind of goodbye call, when you’re calling somebody and you’re not sure that you’re ever going to have the chance to talk to them again,” said Cezar, 20, who came to Boston from Haiti last year.

Cezar’s mom and sisters were okay that day. But they fear the next time violence erupts in Port-au-Prince, they might not be so lucky. That’s why they’ve applied to travel to the United States under what’s known as humanitarian parole. It’s the same program that allowed Cezar to come here and has helped thousands of immigrants seeking refuge from war-torn countries.

But approval can take time. Nearly a year after applying — unable to live their normal lives because of the violence consuming the Haitian capital — all Cezar’s family can do is wait. “I hope, I’m praying, really praying, for that to happen,” Cezar said, sitting in her uncle’s living room in Dorchester. “You kind of feel guilty in a way because I’m here, I’m not with them. And you cannot do anything to change that.”

Cezar’s uncle, Hananiah Pierre-Louis, nodded in agreement: “She’s describing my sentiment for the past 25 years.” Even with the natural disasters and deadly unrest in recent years in Haiti, Pierre-Louis said, there was never a path for him to bring relatives here — until now.

Early last year, the Biden administration rolled out a policy to allow temporary entry for up to 30,000 people a month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. To qualify, people need a clear background check and a US sponsor who pledges to support them financially. If approved, humanitarian parole status allows them to live and work in this country for two years.

So far, roughly 400,000 people from the four countries (known in government shorthand as CHNV) have received parole status, including 154,000 Haitians, according to federal immigration officials. Massachusetts is home to the third-largest Haitian immigrant community in the country, and is receiving a portion of these new arrivals, though federal officials would not provide data indicating how many.

Pierre-Louis said the Biden program has answered his prayers. His own road to America was very different. Orphaned at age 5 when his parents died, he was adopted by the family’s pastor, who brought him to Massachusetts when he was 15.

Pierre-Louis said his adoptive siblings were rejected entry into the US because they were adults, leaving him with a sense of guilt that remains decades later. “It was always a burning desire of mine to have a route to bring my family over because of the constant turmoil and instability in Haiti,” Pierre-Louis said, “mainly to give them a chance to survive and pursue their goals.”

Days after the Biden program launched, Pierre-Louis applied to sponsor Cezar and two other relatives. With money he’d saved from working as an operating-room nurse at Boston Medical Center, he bought his first home in Dorchester, big enough to host new arrivals from Haiti until they could find places of their own.

“I took it seriously because you are vowing that you will provide housing for them and also support them to get settled,” he said.

Within four months of applying, Pierre-Louis got word that three of his relatives had been granted parole. Cezar is enrolled at Roxbury Community College and works at an assisted living facility in Dedham. Another niece, Rode, is now studying English and serves burritos at a Chipotle. Pierre-Louis’ cousin Peter works at an Amazon facility in Woburn.

Advocates say their story shows how immigration policy can allow people from war-torn places to take refuge in this country, while also contributing to the communities hosting them. The program dates back to the 1950s and has been used by presidents from both parties to respond to an array of international crises. The Biden administration first used it to assist migrants from Ukraine and Afghanistan, before expanding it to include Haiti and the other three countries.

Defenders of the program say if anything qualifies as an urgent humanitarian situation, it’s what Haitians are living through. The nonprofit International Rescue Committee includes Haiti among the countries facing the worst humanitarian crises in the world and suggests that one in five women surveyed in Haiti’s capital say they’ve been victims of rape.

A recent United Nations report blames corruption, poor governance, and gang violence for bringing the Haitian state “close to collapse.”

For Boston-based immigration lawyer Julio Henriquez, the program addresses the old question about why immigrants don’t just “get in line. The people claiming that others should have come by legal means don’t realize that there were no legal means — that there was never a line to stand on,” Henriquez said.

Now, that line does exist, he said.

But for many, the line seems to get longer and longer. Keren Cezar’s mother, Maxdala, is holed up with her two other children in Port-au-Prince. In April, Maxdala got word of something else she’d feared: the US rejected her application. It appears the government needs more information about her supporter in America, according to a copy of the notice reviewed by WBUR. Maxdala said she feels trapped in Haiti and doesn’t know what will come next. And she knows her daughter in Boston worries about her.

“I’m glad that Keren is not here to live this situation, but I know that there is still a part of her that stayed here with us and that she’s suffering,” she said.

Even for those who’ve made it here, there’s uncertainty. Their stay here is permitted only for two years. Whether they’ll be allowed to stay longer — and whether the Biden program even continues — could depend on who wins the White House this November.

This article was first published by WBUR on April 29. The Reporter and WBUR share content through a media partnership.

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