February 7, 2018
By Roy Lincoln Karp, Special to the Reporter
Marie Jean Baptiste was on her way home from work when the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010.
As the ground beneath her feet undulated, she could barely move. It was hours before she got back to her family in Santo, a village several miles outside Port-au-Prince. The earth had been shaking so violently from the quake that her husband Shyller, who had been gardening in their yard, had to struggle to get inside the house to retrieve their newborn son.
In the aftermath, a multi-story building across the street collapsed, killing everyone inside. Marie’s house remained standing, but the government forbade people from re-entering their homes due to concerns about collapses. So she and Shyller had to sleep outside with their three-month-old baby.
“It was terrible,” she said, shaking her head at the memory. “There were dead bodies on the street all around us.”
Three days later, Shyller and her son were taken by helicopter to the American embassy and then flown to Boston. Marie stayed behind to make sure that her 69-year-old mother was okay. She was, but physically and emotionally traumatized, she died within a few months. By then, Marie had rejoined her family in Boston.
This was not her first time in Boston. Before her son was born, she struggled to have children because she has Type I Diabetes. After five unsuccessful pregnancies, she came to Boston to access medical expertise unavailable in Haiti. With the support of specialists from Boston Medical Center, she delivered a healthy baby. Now that she was back in Boston, she continued to receive support from BMC, which conducted weekly home visits for almost a year to assess children like her son who had lived through the earthquake.
Marie and her husband had earned their bachelor degrees in administration and economic science while in Haiti, but like many new arrivals in Boston they found it difficult to find work in their areas of study. Since 2010, they have been supporting their family as certified nursing assistants in area hospitals and nursing homes. Their son, now eight, attends St. John Paul II Catholic Academy in Mattapan and they have started college savings accounts for both him and his younger sister, now two years old.
The Baptistes are here legally through a Congressionally mandated humanitarian program that gives them Temporary Protective Status (TPS). The legislation authorizes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to allow foreign nationals to remain lawfully in the US if their home country is experiencing ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster, or “other extraordinary and temporary conditions.” There are now more than 320,000 people living in the US through TPS, including almost 60,000 Haitian-born individuals.
This is an American success story, one that should be held up as exemplary. But this is not where the story ends. Last November, the Trump administration ended the TPS program for Haitians, claiming that conditions in their home country no longer required it. The decision was part of a broader effort by President Trump to dismantle TPS. In recent months, the administration has also ended TPS for approximately 260,000 immigrants from El Salvador, more than 5,000 from Nicaragua, and more than 1,000 from Sudan.
At a bipartisan meeting on immigration held in the Oval Office in January, the president said he didn’t understand why there are so many people in the US from “shithole nations” like Haiti. “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out,” he is reported to have said. Hateful and ignorant comments like these are not surprising coming from a man who has aligned himself with white nationalists and was the public face of birtherism, the racist and thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory used to undermine the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama.
TPS for Haitians is now set to expire on July 22, 2019, but their working permit authorizations will end this July. The many changes announced by DHS in the last several months have caused both confusion and trepidation. Many TPS holders were told not to show up for work in January by employers who mistakenly believed their work permits had already expired.
Marie is bewildered by the prospects her family is now facing. “There is nothing for us in Haiti,” she said. “I will not be able to find work and my children won’t be able to get a decent education, so what will happen to them?”
Her dream is that they go on to college and become professionals, so that they can give back to the country that saved them from catastrophe.
Those dreams will be dashed if they have to return to Haiti. As US citizens, her children can return when they are adults, but they will arrive without an education and without any savings for college.
“It feels like we are going to have another earthquake,” Marie said, making a sad but apt analogy. Once again, the ground beneath her feet is shifting. She and her husband will have to live outside the home they have worked so hard to build for their family. Their story will be yet another national tragedy, one caused not by a natural disaster, but by a political one.