By Bianca Silva
When Brooklyn Council Member Mathieu Eugene was driving on Jan. 12, 2010, his wife called and asked if he was aware of what was going on in Haiti. Slightly perplexed by her comment, she urged him to get to a television and see for himself what was happening. What Eugene saw unfolding his eyes on live television was heartbreaking to say the least.
“It was painful,” he said as he recalled the experience at a press conference Friday at the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East auditorium in Manhattan.
A 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti that killed approximately 250,000 Haitians and caused millions to be homeless followed by a cholera outbreak that same year. At the time, the Obama administration granted Temporary Protective Status (TPS) to Haitian nationals who have since been unable to return to Haiti due to ongoing environmental and corruption problems.
As part of the Immigration Act of 1990, the federal government can grant immigrants the right to stay in the United States due to political unrest or environmental disasters. As of 2018, about 59,000 Haitians are recipients of TPS.
In 2017, the Trump administration called to end TPS for Haitians, claiming that the stability and quality of life in Haiti had improved and the number of displaced people had significantly decreased.
It seems to be no coincidence that the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East launched a TPS campaign urging the government to keep TPS for Haitians in addition to keeping the Dream Act alive for the children of undocumented immigrants who were born in the U.S. stay on the eve of the ninth anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, the catalyst of it all.
The union, according to Maria Castaneda has been proactive in helping Haiti get back on its feet. Shortly after the earthquake, the 1199SEIU donated $1 million in aid through UNICEF to the country.
In addition to Eugene, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte and former Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph were in attendance. Each gave powerful speeches that pulled on crowd’s heartstrings and evoked thunderous applause.
The press conference happened as the Saget et al v Trump trial in Brooklyn where Haitian recipients of TPS are going up against attorneys representing the Trump administration and fighting for their right to stay in the U.S. The recipients are arguing that President Donald Trump’s desire to end TPS for Haitians is racially motivated due to his comments on Haiti being a ‘shithole country.’
For Assemblywoman Bichotte, who represents the ‘Little Haiti’ areas of Flatbush and East Flatbush, mentioned that she currently represents 5,000 Haitians who are TPS recipients.
“It affects my district, it affects me because these are people whose been here for a while who have kids, who are working legally because they have gotten the paperwork to be allowed to work and now this decision comes by the Trump administration to displace and separate them from their families from their young kids who are U.S. citizen-born,” she said.
Along with Bichotte, former Haitian ambassador Raymond Joseph told a heartwarming story regarding the work ethic of Haitian immigrants who are making the most of their time in the U.S.
“The Haitians, when they come, they work,” he said. “They’re not leeches as some politicians say.”
Ketlie Numa-Lespinas, a registered nurse who works at a community hospital in Brooklyn and regularly works with TPS recipients, provided her testimony and expressed the fear some of them have if TPS is revoked.
“I’m not sure what will happen,” she said. “If they are forced to go back to Haiti, they have few if any resources there. Many of them came here with family, so they don’t have many family members to draw on for support in Haiti. They’ve made a life for themselves here in the US. They want to stay here.”
In her speech and ahead of the press conference, Bichotte emphasized the importance of the history of immigrants, especially Haitian immigrants contributing to the U.S. and why the government shouldn’t turn their backs on them at this critical time.
“We are a land of safe haven where we open arms to refugees,” she said. “When we do open our arms and embrace to these immigrants who come in, they become part of our society.”