by Coralie Saint-Louis
Marie sat on a leather couch at her sister’s Brooklyn apartment where she lived when first coming to the United States. A petite black woman with short hair, Marie spoke at ease about living her American dream and the uncertainty that awaits her in her native Haiti.
“Living in this country means moving forward. I love to cook; I would love to open a restaurant—something cultural that can represent Haitians. I know some already exist, but I want mine to put Haiti in the limelight,” she said.
Marie is not her real name. She spoke to the Haitian Times only on the condition that her identity would not be revealed. Marie believed she was able to realize the American dream during her time in the U.S. Now, that dream is quickly turning into a nightmare. Her fate in this dreamland remains in the balance.
Marie is one of 60,000 Haitians living legally in the United States under Temporary Protected Status or TPS. The Obama administration granted TPS to tens of thousands of Haitians living in the United States after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The program granted this select group of immigrants access to work permits and temporary stay until they could safely return to their homeland.
As the Trump administration continues its quest to rid the United States of undocumented immigrants and curtail the number of legal immigrants, advocates are pushing back. Several organizations in the last few months have filed class-action lawsuits and are galvanizing grassroots organizations to also register voters and take the fight to the ballot box. If supportive candidates can win in the midterm elections in November, advocates argue that the balance of power can change and they can enact laws that would protect immigrant rights.
But on the legal battlefield, attorneys and organizers are finding their time spent on convincing jittery people, whose status remains in limbo, to join a lawsuit that will not jeopardize their status.
Last week, a new lawsuit alleging unlawful conduct by the Trump administration officials was filed in the Eastern District of New York on behalf of a dozen plaintiffs. The lawsuit was filed by several organizations and immigration law firms.
“Haiti is a textbook case for TPS, a 1990s statue entailing designation for a nation with TPS when ‘extraordinary’ political and/or environmental events make it unsafe to deport to that country,” said Steven Forester, immigration policy coordinator for the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).
IJDH has had a hand in finding several of the plaintiffs for the lawsuit: “Haiti’s earthquake, the cholera epidemic, and Hurricane Matthew—any one of these events alone—qualify Haiti for TPS; the administration had to willfully ignore these conditions to terminate Haiti’s TPS designation, and they violated procedures and the Constitution in so doing. We seek reinstatement of Haiti’s TPS designation as having been unlawfully terminated,” said Forester.
Last year, the Trump administration announced that it would end TPS, leaving many to wonder why such a decision was made given the current state of Haiti. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claims the temporary conditions caused by the 2010 earthquake no longer exist, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF) is suing the Trump administration and DHS over the decision, calling it “an intent to discriminate on the basis of race and/or ethnicity.”
“The analysis of Haitian TPS that [then] Secretary [John] Kelly and [Deputy] Secretary [Elaine] Dukes undertook, is markedly different than the analysis of TPS that the secretaries that preceded them undertook,” Raymond Audain, senior counsel for LDF, said. “So that departure indicated to us that there was something happening with Haitian TPS.”
Over the course of six months, Trump reportedly made several discriminatory statements about Haitians, including comments alleging Haitians “all, have AIDS” and questioning why the U.S. “would want more Haitians” from a “shithole” country—comments which played a role in the lawsuit.
“Now on top of that, you have what happened when Secretary Kelly asked for an investigation into the criminality of Haitians with TPS status and also the use of public benefits,” Audain said. “All of that, in conjunction with the president’s comments about Haiti and about Haitians, has demonstrated to us that this decision was motivated by an intent to discriminate against Haitians because of their race.”
Marleine Bastien, a long-time community activist in Miami, denounces Trump’s decision and calls it disruptive and devastating. Bastien, executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miami (FANM) (translated: Haitian Women of Miami) added that the Haitians affected contribute to the social, economic, and political fabric of the United States.
“This decision has thrown our community into a state of turmoil, panic, and high level of anxiety. Every community organization/institution is suffering as a result,” Bastien said. “Businesses are closing their doors, flea markets in Miami, churches, adult programs have seen a steep reduction as a result of the TPS termination.”
According to the Center for American Progress, there are 32,500 Haitian TPS holders in the state of Florida and 18,800 U.S.-born children in Florida with Haitian parents who are TPS holders and have lived in the U.S. for an average of 12 years.
But the fate of these undocumented immigrants and their U.S.-born children remains uncertain. Similar to the tens of thousands of Haitians living in the U.S. on TPS, Marie, who has called this country home for over a decade, will have to leave once her status expires in July.
Marie entered the U.S. on a tourist visa in 2004. She never went back after experiencing a traumatic incident in Haiti.
Before overstaying her visa, she was a frequent traveler who often came here on vacation. She worked as a secretary for more than six years at the Secretary of State for Literacy in Haiti. She left work one evening and hailed a taxi home. In Haiti, most taxis, called tap-taps, are rideshares. It was perfectly normal when another passenger got in the back seat while she sat in the front next to the driver. After several blocks, three men filled the back of the car. As the driver continued on his route, one of the men pulled out a gun and demanded possession of the car. Marie found herself caught in the middle of a carjacking. She quickly grabbed her purse to get out of the vehicle, but one of the men ordered her to stay in the car.
In addition to environmental risks, Human Rights Watch listed Haiti’s continuing political instability, a broken criminal justice system, violence against women, child domestic labor, and cholera as being part of an ongoing crisis in its 2018 World Report. The report also found that “political instability in 2017 hindered the Haitian government’s ability to meet the basic needs of its people, resolve long-standing human rights problems, or address continuing humanitarian crises.”
Marie caught a break when one of the men suggested to the others to let her go. That day, she watched the thieves drive off in the car they had just stolen, taking with them her house keys, her checkbook, her money, and everything else in her purse. The incident left her traumatized. In the months following the carjacking, she barely left her home.
“Every time I’m going to work and I get in a taxi and another man gets in, I panic and tell the driver I reached my destination. I get out and take another taxi. It was like that for a year. I even stopped going out at night, I only went to work and back,” she said. She shares the story with fear in her eyes as she relives the moment.
It’s moments like these that kept Marie living in the U.S. illegally for six years before former President Barack Obama granted TPS to Haitians. For years, she was unable to work or move forward with her life. Stuck having to choose between going back to a country where she constantly feared for her life and staying in a country where her presence was illegal, she chose the latter. But since she was granted TPS, she’s been able to maintain a job, get her own place, and regain her independence. Although limited, she was finally free to experience the American dream.
“This country has a lot to offer, especially in terms of security. Haiti is really not secure; people are getting kidnapped, robbed. I was really stressed out [the last year] I spent living in Haiti. Here at least, I can live a decent life. I’ve been living in this country for a long time and I just want to move forward,” she said.
The new lawsuit covers Haitian TPS holders in New York and Florida and includes a “Regulatory Flexibility Act which asserts harm to businesses—in our case Haïti Liberté” says Forester.
According to the Center for American Progress, 21,900 workers in Florida are Haitian TPS holders and $1.2 billion would be lost from the state GDP annually without them.
Haitians are not rushing to join these lawsuits as many are afraid of early repercussions. Marie thinks more people should get involved since the results will affect them in the long run.
“I know that there’s a lot of concern in the Haitian TPS community about going public about this,” said Audain, “and I think those concerns are completely understandable. That’s an issue that organizations face all the time when they are working on the behalf of communities that may be vulnerable to government actions. I understand why there’s a lot of apprehension on the part of people [joining the lawsuit], then we certainly welcome accommodations with those individuals.”