Temporary Protected Status allowed thousands of Haitians to live in the U.S. for almost ten years. It will no longer exist after July 22, 2019, leaving Haitian New Yorkers with a tough decision: to stay or to go?

Haitian advocates and activists at a TPS Alliance rally outside New York’s City Hall, October 2018. Photo by Conchita Widjojo

By Emma Vickers

She waited for fourteen hours to be rescued from under the rubble of her home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the earthquake. She waited eight months after that for her school to reopen, before moving to New York to continue her education. She waited for nine months after that to be told that yes, she was eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and so yes, she could stay.

And now, Stéphanie Etienne* is waiting again, waiting and hoping, she says, because if something doesn’t change, on July 22, 2019 she will lose her right to live and work in the United States For the 5,400 Haitians living in New York City under TPS, the government’s decision to end the program has been anything but decisive. Instead, it marks another episode of confusion and uncertainty. And waiting.

With roots in two countries, Haitians like Etienne are left to weigh their investment in a life in the U.S. against the shadowy threat of deportation, and to try to decide what to do next. They will go or they will stay, and meanwhile they wait.

“The only thing I know, is that I don’t want to go back,” says Etienne. “Fifty thousand people to go back to Haiti the ways that things are now? There’s not gonna be any jobs, there’s not gonna be anywhere to stay. And a lot of us are supporting family back there.”

But as things stand, the decision really boils down to two options: stay in the U.S without papers, or return to the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

On January 15, 2010, Janet Napolitano, then Homeland Security Secretary, announced that Haitians would be able to apply for Temporary Protected Status in the U.S. She described the earthquake that had hit Haiti three days earlier as “a disaster of historic proportions.” But she went on to explain that this was a limited opportunity. Only those Haitians who were physically present in the U.S. on the day of the quake were eligible because to send them back home would endanger their personal safety.

Some 58,000 people were offered this status, according to the Migration Policy Institute, and with it, the ability to continue living and working in the U.S. Though initially intended to last for 18 months, TPS was repeatedly extended for Haitians. For almost 10 years, each new review by the State Department found that conditions on the ground in Haiti had not improved enough to ask people to return.

As first there was one extension of TPS, then two, then three, and then four, Haitian TPS holders began to build lives in the U.S.

Etienne was one of them. She finished high school in Brooklyn, went to college, earned her undergraduate degree, and began working as a teacher. “It’s not really that I always wanted to be a teacher, but I got some good inspiration from my other teachers — people who taught me in a special way,” she says. When she arrived in the U.S., she knew only a few words of English. She attended extra classes, and her teacher helped her learn the language so quickly that, in four months, she was able to pass her exams and graduate. “I wanted to empower kids just like I got empowered by my teacher,” she says. She works hard. “I can’t think about free time without thinking about teaching,” she says. “It’s not a nine to five job.”

Esther Desir*, a TPS holder and nurse living in New York, is another Haitian facing a big decision. Like Etienne, she contributes to the city she calls home. She spent nine months working during the day and studying at night school. She learned the U.S. health system, and improved her English enough to re-establish the professional status she had held in Haiti where she worked as a nurse with non-profits. She got a Social Security number; she paid taxes.

Some Haitian TPS holders have started families as well as careers while in the U.S., and their children are U.S. citizens, making it even more difficult to arrive at a decision.

“The choice that family has, is between, ‘do I wave goodbye to my Mom and Dad, as they get deported to Haiti so I can stay behind and pursue my right to education and citizenship and a future in my country, the United States,’” says Steve Forester, Immigration Policy Coordinator at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, “Or, ‘so that I can stay with my Mom and Dad, do I move to a country that is the poorest in the hemisphere?’ It’s a barbaric choice to present to a family,” he says.

Elaine Duke

The Department of Homeland Security sees things differently. On November 20, 2017, Elaine Duke, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, announced that TPS would not be extended again. She determined that the impact of the earthquake had been eased enough that it was safe to return. Haitians were given 18-months to leave.

A report from the Global Justice Clinic at New York University takes issue with Duke’s assessment, arguing that extraordinary conditions persist, due to Hurricane Matthew, a cholera epidemic, continued displacement and food insecurity. And Ninaj Raoul, co-founder of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, which has been working with Haitians in the U.S. since 1992, is not convinced that the decision to end TPS for Haitians has been made on the basis of conditions in Haiti at all. Instead, she says, it is about fulfilling a Trump campaign promise to undo Obama-era decisions. “He made it pretty clear it was all about reversing,” she says. Herold Dasque, the executive director of another nonprofit that works with the Haitian community, Haitian Americans United for Progress, goes further: “We think it’s unfair,” he says, “but we know also its a racist decision.”

The Trump administration’s decision to end TPS may have presented Haitians with a dilemma about what to do next, but the decision itself wasn’t a surprise to many. “I was expecting it to go this way just because of our current presidency,” says Naïscha Vilme, a 21-year-old graduate and TPS holder. “I didn’t think he would actually support Haitians… That would be the shocking part, for him to support us.”

Lawsuits have been brought against the U.S. government on this basis, that the decision to end TPS for Haitians was based on racial discrimination and not on the reality on the ground in Haiti. One such lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of New York, cites Trump’s disparaging remarks towards immigrants in general and particularly Haitians. One listed example, and one that is often raised by advocates for Haitian TPS holders, is President Trump’s statement that Haitians “all have AIDS,” in a June 2017 Oval Office meeting with the then Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly.

Vilme has agreed to be a plaintiff in this suit following the termination of TPS. “I wanted to do something,” she says “Maybe this could be something to catch the government’s attention, to be part of something that could change the outcome.”

Sejal Zota, legal director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild and an attorney representing Vilme, is hopeful that the outcome will be to stop the current administration from enforcing the termination of TPS. “It’s unclear how long all of this will take,” says Zota, “but if we have a new president in power and it’s a different administration then everything could change.”

Again, this is an exercise in waiting.

For Etienne, who stands to lose her right to be in the U.S. in 10 months, the 2020 elections are distant. But news reports of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency questioning people on the street have made her fearful. “You starting to be afraid, if they gonna stop you some day and ask you questions,” she says.

Such fears were evident at a rally held by the TPS Alliance in New York in October. The crowd was mostly activists and advocates rather than TPS holders themselves, who fear ICE will detain them on the street, says Dasque, even though, at least for now, they are legal.

Meanwhile, the bar for immigration-related arrests is indeed getting lower. Tom Jawetz, Vice President of Immigration Policy, at the Center for American Progress, notes that the Trump administration has done away with the policy of prioritizing for deportation only people who represent a danger to the community. And data released by the NYC Mayor’s office shows that since February 2017 ICE has increased arrests of people with no criminal convictions by 200 per cent in the NYC area.

ICE was contacted for this story but a spokesperson, Sarah Rodriguez, declined to comment on how the agency will enforce the termination of TPS next year, citing the pending litigation. Another case, in a federal district court in San Francisco, has temporarily barred the Trump administration from enforcing an end to TPS and sending people home; an appeal from the government is expected. The legal process will likely be lengthy, raising the specter of further waiting for Haitians struggling to make the calculation about what to do next.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

For Desir, Etienne and other Haitians living in the U.S., a return to Haiti is a last resort.

Desir’s memories of her exit from her home country, four days after the earthquake, are of chaos. Such was the scale of the disaster, she recalls, that U.S. immigration officials were issuing visas on blank pieces of paper, in lieu of passports, to Haitian-Americans trying to leave the country through the embassy in Port-au-Prince. She went to the embassy herself, she says, accompanying a young relative who had U.S. citizenship, and whose father had asked her to bring him to the U.S. The drive there has stuck with her. “It was a real horror movie, cadavers everywhere, it was…”. She trails off.

And many, like Etienne, support family at home. Haitian TPS holders working in the U.S. support 250,000 of their relatives in their home country, according to the Global Justice Clinic, a significant proportion of the country’s population of 11 million. If Etienne has to go back to Haiti, her family will lose an important part of their income.

Instead, both insist, they want a way to stay in the U.S. legally.

At present Desir and others like her have few legal options. The American Promise Act was introduced to Congress last November, and proposes allowing TPS holders to transition to permanent residence. But the Act has been sitting with the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security for nearly a year.

Other legal remedies for Haitians about to lose their protected status, like marrying a U.S. citizen or being sponsored by a family member to stay in the U.S., are available to very few Haitian TPS holders, says Dasque, whose organization offers legal counsel to Haitians in New York. Under U.S. law, even those whose children were born in the U.S. don’t always have this option: the children must be over 21 years old to sponsor a parent. In cases where this is a possibility, changing immigration status from TPS to something else means a return to Haiti for many, to begin the lengthy process, says Zota.

Etienne is half serious when asked what her plan is: “Probably get married! Maybe to somebody who has citizenship.” She expands on how she sees the decision facing her: “There are only three choices… the first one, is the government gonna say something to not only extend but maybe offer an opportunity for this to be long term…? The second option, are you gonna find a good man or a good woman who loves you… you’re not doing this for business but who loves you and they want to get married…? And the third option that I do not want is to go back home. And I’m pretty sure that a lot of people are doing the second option.”

If something doesn’t change, as Etienne hopes, Nekessa Opoti of UndocuBlack Network, an organization supporting undocumented black people, makes a prediction: “The reality is these people are going to be undocumented. They will be here, and they will be undocumented. So the question is how will they exist with that new reality?”

Haitian TPS holders are contributing to the economic life of the city — 73 per cent are working, and collectively earn $91 million per year, according to data from the NYC Mayor’s office. Becoming undocumented means giving all this up.

“They’ve had work permits, they’ve been able to exist within the system. And now that’s all going to be taken away from them,” said Opoti. “What will happen to their houses, to their businesses, to the communities they’ve built?”

Advocates are concerned about the drop in the number of Haitians re-registering for TPS in the most recent round, after the May 2017 announcement, by then Secretary Kelly, that the program would likely be terminated. Dasque believes this shows that some Haitians, previous TPS holders, have decided to go underground.

Forester agrees. While some may have already left the U.S., or changed their immigration status, he says, “the numbers shouldn’t drop that dramatically.” Etienne acknowledges that some in her community may be considering staying, hidden, in the U.S. after July 2019. For Vilme, this is not an option. “It’s too stressful, honestly,” she says. “They know where to find you.”

While Haitian TPS holders continue to weigh their options, the clock keeps ticking down to July 22, 2019. None of the individuals interviewed for this article have made any concrete plans to leave. Nor are they banking on staying. Vilme is still planning to apply to graduate school, for entrance in the fall of 2019. Desir is worried, but gets up and goes to work every day anyway.

Etienne does the same, and waits in anticipation: “Hopefully God’s going to open the doors. I’m trying to keep the faith as well, that something good will be happening.”

*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals

Emma Vickers can be reached at @EmmaCVickers or emma.vickers@columbia.edu

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