haitian asylum seekers
A mother clutches her child at a shelter in Texas in September 2021. Photo by Leonardo March

NEW YORK – As thousands of Haitians who entered the United States last September await individual asylum hearings in United States immigration courts, some attorneys and advocates fear their clients might join the more than 20,000 already deported to Haiti in the past year. 

Attorney Frederic Aurelien, who represents six clients in New York, said his are “the ones that are lucky,” with family and friends willing to cover thousands of dollars in legal expenses. One client who arrived in September 2021 has an individual asylum hearing in late April, he said. 

“We’re going to see a lot of them with removal orders,” said Aurelien, of Hackettstown, New Jersey, speaking about asylum cases in general. “And I don’t know how that’s going to play out, if the government’s going to enforce those removal orders.” 

Attorneys have said that more than 10,000 Haitian nationals released into the U.S. to seek asylum in the last six months face long odds of successful claims for permanent protection and residency. The hurdle is due to an inability, in many cases, to prove persecution based on political views, religion, race and other categories. For these reasons, historical odds are low for Haitian asylum seekers, with about 82% of asylum claims denied since the year 2000. 

With no access to Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitian immigrants who arrived after July 29, attorneys and immigration advocates have voiced concerns while helping some of those who arrived last fall prepare for hearings in the spring. 

“We need people to remember that the crisis is still there,” said Geralde Gabeau, founder and executive director of the Boston-based Immigrant Family Services Institute (IFSI). The nonprofit works to obtain legal help for about 1,000 families seeking asylum.  

“It’s not going to go anywhere anytime soon, until the Biden administration makes the decision to really give coverage, a blanket, to those families,” Gabeau said. “We need to continue to push until we get to a place where those families do not have to worry about whether or not they’re going to be deported.” 

Multiple asylum seekers, some of whom could face the threat of deportation, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. 

In recent weeks, immigration advocates have welcomed a federal court ruling making it easier for asylum seekers to get work permits. But they have also criticized the Biden administration for continuing to deport people, mostly recently arrived migrants, to Haiti. 

Deportation by the numbers

Through the end of February, the administration has expelled at least 20,200 people to Haiti since Biden took office in January 2021. That’s more than the previous three U.S. presidential administrations combined, according to a Feb. 18 report by the Quixote Center, a social justice advocacy group, citing United Nations figures on removals to Haiti. 

Title 42, a public health order reinstituted in March 2020 that denies access to asylum screening for those who cross the border, is responsible for at least 85% of the deportations, according to the Quixote report

Days before the report’s release, those who have already filed for asylum received a measure of good news. Citing a Feb. 7 federal court decision vacating Trump-era rules, Aurelien said asylum seekers no longer have to wait a year to apply for a work permit. They can once again do so after 150 days of applying for asylum, according to legal experts

“The right to work is an essential component of humanitarian protection,” said Joan Hodges-Wu, executive director of the nonprofit AsylumWorks, in a prepared statement about the Feb. 7 ruling. “Work is not only imperative to economic survival; it also represents a means for asylum seekers to maintain personal dignity and self-respect during the long and protracted legal process.”

But the legal process can also come at great expense. The 1,000 families IFSI serves have at least one asylum case each, with legal expenses for a single case costing $7,000 or more, said Gabeau, the nonprofit director. 

Despite receiving $8 million allocated by the state of Massachusetts several weeks ago to cover legal and other social needs, the organization is still overwhelmed with finding attorneys and assisting with legal expenses, she said. Individual asylum hearings are coming up in March and April for those who arrived in September, she added. 

“It could be a very difficult situation because they have to have legal representation,” Gabeau said. “If they were to just give those people access to at least TPS, that would solve so much, so many of the issues.” 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America corps member. 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.