haitian tps
People protest the Trump administration’s call to overturn Temporary Protected Status for Haitians in front of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in May 2017 in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Of the nearly 60,000 Haitians living in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), many have taken up roots in the country, with families and businesses now firmly established over the past decade. On June 7, however, the Supreme Court decided their protected status cannot guarantee permanent residency.

When she heard the decision, San Diego resident and TPS holder Josiane Valsaint said she tried not to panic. 

“It’s not something I was ready to hear,” said Valsaint, a community health worker with three children, two of whom are U.S. citizens. “And it’s sad to know after all that time we spent here [that] it’s going to be a roadblock for us to get the permanent residence. It’s hard.” 

Although she has never applied, Valsaint said she has hoped to gain permanent legal status, after coming to the U.S. in 2010. 

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that TPS does not give immigrants who initially came to the country without documentation the right to become permanent residents, according to media reports. Per federal law, immigrants seeking a green card to become a permanent resident must have been legally paroled or admitted into the U.S. About 400,000 people nationwide have TPS, including nationals of certain Central American, African and Asian countries. 

“This is a devastating blow to the Haitian community, not only in South Florida but everywhere,” said Michael Andre Etienne, an attorney in North Miami. 

Etienne said he received multiple calls on June 7, from community members who spoke of opening bank accounts in Haiti, in the event they could be forced to return. 

Without comprehensive immigration reform by Congress, Etienne said he feared that TPS holders can indeed be forced to return if a future president does not renew their status. “That means that once TPS is ended, that’s it, it’s a wrap,” he said. 

The Supreme Court ruling does not impact the status of those who currently have TPS or the ability of Haitians to gain the status under the government’s redesignation announcement last month. TPS was initially granted to Haitian nationals living in the U.S. at the time of the 2010 earthquake.

It was then extended to Haitians who arrived in the country for other reasons, including on temporary immigration visas. Although she did not have exact figures, Guerline Jozef, who leads the nonprofit immigrant advocacy group Haitian Bridge Alliance, estimated that the court ruling applies to about half of Haitian TPS holders. 

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan has said that the ruling on TPS does not apply to those who overstayed their visas, meaning these immigrants can still obtain permanent residency.

Hours after the ruling, Jozef said her organization was still figuring out how to educate community members. 

“We are undeterred and determined to push for protections, push for solutions for all those people,” Jozef said. “A lot of them have been at the forefront fighting COVID-19.” 

The court decision comes just over two weeks after the federal government’s redesignation of TPS, which will allow an estimated 100,000 Haitians to benefit from the status. Since 2010, the government has continually renewed TPS for periods of 18 months or less, which recipients and their advocates say has forced people to live in a constant state of limbo. 

Following the court’s ruling, Valsaint expressed her hope for a permanent extension of TPS, sometime in the future. “The only way now to get permanent residence is if TPS can be no longer temporary but permanent for us,” she said. 

To be sure, Congress could also open up a route to permanent residency for TPS holders, if it changes the law by passing immigration legislation, immigration advocates say. The American Dream and Promise Act, which passed in the House of Representatives earlier this year, would provide TPS holders an opportunity to obtain permanent residency status. It faces uncertain prospects in the Senate. 

Jozef criticized the Supreme Court decision and emphasized the need for the Dream and Promise Act. 

“The decision was not made based on the lives of the people, on fairness and justice,” Jozef said. “We’ll continue to push, and we really need Congress to pass the Dream and Promise Act.” 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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