Photo credit: Peg Huner
Photo credit: Peg Huner

By Danielle Hyams

Rose Michelle Tilus, 35, has done everything right. She studied hard and became a registered nurse. She serves the disadvantaged in her community at a local health center while also taking classes to become a family nurse practitioner. But because she is a Haitian Temporary Protective Status (TPS) holder, her status in the United States – where she has lived for more than half of her life – is uncertain.

“It’s been like a nightmare,” Tilus said of the changes in TPS for Haitians. “Yes, I knew that at some point this protection I had could end, but I didn’t expect it to be so sudden or so soon. So it was like a roller coaster, I felt like I was going down and there was no stopping it. You get sad, you get hurt, you get hopeless.”

Yet, Haitian TPS holders who have been living in a state of fear and uncertainty since President Donald Trump took office in 2016 finally have a reason to be hopeful. With the passage of the American Dream and Promise Act by the Democratic-led House of Representatives on June 5, a pathway to permanent residency is slowly becoming a reality. The bill would benefit not just those with TPS, but also those eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and people with Deferred Enforced Departure (DED). In total it could impact more than 2.5 million people.

“I can’t even begin to explain what it [the bill] would do for me,” Tilus said. “I have started from scratch: learning English, going to school, graduating and then going back to school. And the whole time not knowing when or how would I finish. I don’t have financial aid, so I have to pay with my money. And I’m doing this hoping I stay. So this bill would just give me some freedom to know that it is done. Finally I can take a breath.”

President and CEO of HABNET Chamber of Commerce Jackson Rockingster (center) at a 2017 rally calling for the renewal of TPS for Haitians.

The American Dream and Promise Act, also known as H.R. 6, is something immigration advocates have long been working toward.

“This is the one thing that works for everyone with TPS,” said Ninaj Raoul, cofounder of the organization Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees. “This has been the best bill of all that have been presented, this is what everybody wants: permanent residency.”

The bill came at a time when many were losing hope, said Guerline Jozef, co-founder and executive director of nonprofit Haitian Bridge Alliance.

“What we believed to be impossible was made possible for black migrants,” she added.We took risks and it paid off.”

The vote comes just weeks before the July 22 deadline originally set by the Trump administration to end TPS for Haitians. A series of lawsuits filed on behalf of Haitian TPS holders claiming wrongful termination based on discrimination resulted in an extension in coverage, but a more permanent solution has always been the goal. Currently there are roughly 46,000 Haitians living in the U.S. under TPS, with 5,000 of them in New York City.

“People are living their lives in limbo for many years, in particular in the Haitian community since the earthquake in 2010,” Raoul said. “We’re going on 10 years since that happened and it’s been really difficult for folks to wonder whether or not they’re going to be out of status.”

Graph showing TPS recipients in the US. March 2018

Albert Saint Jean, a community organizer for Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), an organization that works with African Americans and black immigrant communities to promote racial, social and economic justice, says that he has seen a lot of concern in the Haitian community since the election of President Trump about the possibility of people’s lives being uprooted.

“For the folks that do have TPS, their main worry is that,” he said. “Like, ‘I’m paying rent, I have an apartment on my own, I have my kids in school here, I’m probably in the process of buying a house, I probably own a business. How the hell am I going to continue my life if this is taken away?’”

TPS holders often support their families both here and in Haiti and contribute immensely to the local economy. Roughly 79 percent of American Dream Act-eligible New York City residents participate in the labor force, as opposed to 65 percent of the general population, generating an estimated $1 billion in Gross Domestic Product for the city. Most notably, an estimated 42 percent of Haitian American Promise Act-eligible residents in the labor force work in the medical and health service industries, often helping care for the city’s aging population.

To advance, the American Dream and Promise Act must now pass through the Republican-controlled senate.

“It’s a tough fight but I guess not doing it would be giving up halfway,” Tilus said. “It can be fearful and intimidating but we’ve worked so hard; there’s only one way to go and it’s moving forward. This bill would be like a second chance to call this country a home.”

Danielle Hyams is a New York City based freelance journalist.

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