For as long as he could remember, Mickaël Déjean wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. His younger brother Sebastien aspires to be a psychologist. Enrolled as graduate students in Brooklyn College, Mickaël on the health sciences track and Sebastien in experimental psychology, the brothers inch closer to achieving their dreams. But if the Trump administration has its way, those dreams will be dashed by mid-2019.
Mickaël, 30, and Sebastien, 27, are two of nearly 60,000 Haitians who were granted temporary protected status after an earthquake that killed 220,000 and injured 300,000 devastated their home country in 2010. Last November, the Trump administration decided to rescind TPS for Haiti and said TPS holders must return to Haiti by July 2019. In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said “the ‘extraordinary but temporary conditions’ caused by the earthquake no longer exist because the country has made notable progress in its recovery and rebuilding efforts.”
The Déjean brothers beg to differ.
“I talk to my mom almost all the time and my mom tells me that things are bad, and that you actually can’t even think about coming back home,” Sebastien said.
“She said there’s no reason for us to come,” Mickaël added.
Mickaël and Sebastien speak with their parents, who both still live in Port-au-Prince, two or three times a week. Their mother, Monette, visits every summer. The brothers have not visited Haiti since the earthquake out of fear they might lose status and be unable to return.
The disaster unleashed an influx of humanitarian aid, approximately $13.5 billion in donations and pledges from other nations and private charities. However, according to Mickaël and Sebastien, the anticipated drastic improvements have not yet been observed.
“And the money came in,” Mickaël said. “But nobody knows where it went.”
“That’s how things are back home,” Sebastien shrugged.
A humanitarian program established under the Immigration Act of 1990, TPS allows non-U.S. citizens to seek refuge from their home countries to escape ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster or any other extraordinary, temporary conditions.
The 2010 earthquake severely damaged Haiti’s infrastructure and initially displaced approximately 1 million people, but subsequent hurricanes and health scares, including a cholera outbreak, justified periodic renewals made by the Obama administration. Under current law, DHS can keep extending TPS in 18-month intervals so long as uninhabitable conditions persist in the recipients’ native countries.
Though more than eight years have passed since the earthquake, the conditions in Haiti are still unstable, according to the Déjean brothers. With the country’s crumbling infrastructure, political unrest, and vulnerability to natural disasters, the return of 60,000 TPS holders to Haiti could overwhelm the government and worsen conditions for everyone. It remains the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
“The obvious thing to do would be to create some mechanism for long-term TPS for recipients to be considered for permanent residency,” said Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies. “But [DHS is] not doing that.”
After almost a decade in the U.S., tens of thousands of Haitians established roots in their new homes. At Brooklyn College, Mickaël is a graduate teaching assistant and Sebastien works at the LGBTQ Resource Center. Both brothers pay taxes and live together in an apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
“I get the argument that [TPS is] supposed to be a temporary thing – and how long temporary is, is a good question to ask,” said Sebastien. “But what do you do with people that have been living in a country for over eight years? It may not be a long time, I guess depending on how people perceive things, but it is a long time because you work, you build connections, you build friends – it’s a whole life.”
Since Trump took office, the administration has tightened the screws on immigration by enforcing stricter policies and aiming to terminate programs such as TPS and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Salvadorans, Hondurans and Nepalis with TPS also face possible expulsion, and many “Dreamers” from Mexico and elsewhere have also been under siege.
“This administration isn’t only going after undocumented immigrants – they’re going after pretty much immigrants in general,” Sebastien said. “It’s a war against immigrants in general.”
“Which makes no sense because this country is a country of immigrants, even the president himself, 45 – his parents are immigrants,” Mickaël added. “There is no such thing as a true American besides the Native Americans, but it’s ‘Make America Great Again’, I guess.”
President Trump boasts many nicknames, one of them being “45”, as in the 45th president of the United States. Both Déjean brothers refer to him as a number to delegitimize him and to deny him as the leader of the new world. According to Mickaël, “his ways, methods, thought process does not exude democratic belief.”
Both Mickaël and Sebastien plan to continue studying. They haven’t considered living out their futures in their native Haiti.
“We have no backup plans. It’s certainly a challenge going to another country to finish our degrees if it comes to that,” Sebastien said. “Needless to add that things are still not relatively O.K. back home and having lived in my country for 18 years, there’s always political unrest and insecurity issues. We would certainly feel out of place.”
Facing the July termination date of TPS, Mickaël and Sebastien have thoroughly brainstormed options to extend their stay. Mickaël visited a lawyer from CUNY’s Citizenship Now! service and discussed potential paths for citizenship.
The first option was attaining residency through a family member, but that requires having a direct blood relative resident here as a sponsor, which they do not have. A second option was applying for a work visa, but H-1B visas are generally granted to people who have demonstrated extraordinary work in their special skillset and require an employer to sponsor them, which they also do not have. Finally, both fleetingly considered – and rejected – marriage to an American citizen, since neither has a significant other and a fake marriage could be grounds for fraud charges.
Though Mickaël and Sebastien are heavily involved within the Brooklyn College community, re-applying for an F-1 visa would be extremely costly, given that fees and tuition for those with international student status are triple what they are currently paying.
“We have spoken to lawyers on our specific case,” Sebastien said. “The bottom line is that there’s not much to do besides waiting and hoping that the TPS will remain.”
In early October, a federal judge in California temporarily blocked the administration’s plans to fully terminate temporary protected status, so Mickaël, Sebastien and hundreds of thousands of TPS beneficiaries are safe from self-deportation for now.
“There’s various things that [TPS holders] can do to try to seek status, but I think the truth is that most of them would have already [tried] that,” said Kerwin. “So, in the end, I think what many of them are faced with is either returning, which most of them don’t want to do, or going underground and just becoming undocumented.”
Despite racing against time for a solution, the Déjean brothers remain collected. “We’re trying not to think about it so much because at the end of the day, life continues and we have to be in school, we have to get homework done,” Sebastien said. “But, it’s still in our minds.” Continue reading