Haitian beneficiaries of the new parole process are disembarking at airports across the country, while many potential supporters have questions about their legal responsibilities, financial requirements and how their lives may be impacted.
Good news arrives unexpectedly
‘I’m well. I’m in the U.S.,’ began the text message. ‘In Boston. It’s really cold.’
So began on Friday, Jan. 27, the American life of 30-year-old “Bobo,” a family nickname he asked to use for this article.
It had been a whirlwind week for the former resident of Duchity, a village about 30 minutes by car ride from Les Cayes, Haiti, leading up to his departure for the United States. The Monday prior, Bobo happened to be in Port-au-Prince, picking up his passport in case he was approved through the I-134A process for Haitians. He was with his cousin when USCIS texted him that Bobo’s travel authorization was approved.
“When you receive an authorization, you want to cry,” Bobo said by phone recently. “You want to show everyone because you’re so excited. But, now in Port au Prince, you have to keep it inside, so I was concentrating. I couldn’t breathe.”
“I couldn’t even tell my cousin, because I wanted us to be safe,” he said.
When they returned to the safety of the house, Bobo finally told his cousin. From then, unable even to return to Duchity to hug his mother goodbye, he made preparations to fly to Boston’s Logan International Airport.
“My older sister hugged me for five minutes when she picked me up at the Boston airport,” said Bobo.
Bobo is among the first 2,000 or so Haitian beneficiaries who have entered the U.S. through the Biden administration’s new parole process for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans. The process has the potential of bringing 90,000 Haitians each year into the U.S., according to USCIS.
For many Haitians living in the U.S. and non-Haitians with ties to Haiti who had hoped to bring relatives and friends to America, the Biden process announced in early January seems like it might be a dream come true. A dream with many nebulous aspects, as questions arise, especially for potential financial sponsors — from making the decision to apply to figuring out the logistics of travel and well beyond. Questions that the federal government is only clarifying as applicants go through the process.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration and Services (USCIS) site offers tons of information, including a question-and-answer page and a chatbot named Emma that speaks English and Kreyol. But its limited knowledge seems insufficient to address the nuanced questions raised by potential financial supporters, lawyers, immigration advocates and beneficiaries.
Potential sponsor, Karen Wires of Annandale, Va., became involved in Haiti in 2003 through an established program that supported an orphanage.
“All you had to do was be interested in the cause and everything was right there for you,” she said. “This [parole process] seems much more of a gamble and much more of an iffy situation.”
Sponsors feel alone with unique questions
American Karen Wires and her husband have started the sponsor process for longtime friend Pierre Jules Andre, of Leogane. They had met the young man and supported him through high school and college through that student sponsorship program. When Biden opened the new pathway, they immediately thought of Andre, who was living then with his family in Carrefour, one of the Port-au-Prince neighborhoods besieged by gangs.
With her and her husband being in their mid-70s, the couple turned to their church as an additional sponsor, which the process allows. They hope the congregation might help with basic living necessities as well as the logistics for settling Andre’s family of four — such as finding jobs, a house, an elementary school.
While waiting to hear from the church, Wires moved along with the process and called the USCIS live chat line to ask questions. She received, what she knew to be, wrong information.
Similarly, Voltaire Sainfort, a Temporary Protection Status (TPS) recipient in New Jersey wants to sponsor his adolescent daughter, who lives in Port-au-Prince with extended family. Though Saintfort works two jobs, he didn’t know if his income qualifies him as a sponsor. So he took four hours off from his second job to figure out the costs of bringing in his daughter and find the documents needed to file.
“I’m doing some estimates. I consider my niece like my daughter. Some day, I will try to bring her also.”
Pressure mounts on potential sponsors
Meanwhile, many Haitians wanting to move to the U.S. are adding pressure in their requests for potential sponsors to move quickly.
In central Florida, one American woman who had met a family with five kids near Jacmel when she taught English there, got a feel for that.
“As soon as news hit of the I-134 form, the two older boys both messaged [my husband] and me several times a day,” said the woman, who asked for confidentiality because of the sensitive nature. “‘How can you help me?’ ‘Please help me get there.’”
“The older one even asked us not to help any of his siblings — only him,” the former English teacher said. “He said he’d help his siblings once he arrived.”
This power grab by the elder suggested to the couple just how ugly inter-family situations could get with the parole process.
Bobo too is among those calling other family members in the U.S. seeking another set of sponsors. This time for his girlfriend, who is four months pregnant.
Deciding on the “best” beneficiary
Once the beneficiary arrives, the process gives them up to two years to apply for work authorization, find a job and otherwise settle in. For the sponsor, that could mean supporting the new arrival throughout that time while they learn English, improve a skill or find work.
Sponsoring people who are able and willing to work is a deciding factor for many sponsors.
Tedhy Louis of Grand Rapids, Mich., wonders which of his family and friends to sponsor. He’s decided not to look at anyone who isn’t successful in Haiti. It’s a determination he’s made, in part, because of his business, Snapmar. He consults with Haitians throughout the U.S., wanting to create small businesses soon after they arrive.
He encourages new arrivals to take time to understand the system, the culture.
“The first thing I will tell an immigrant is to get a job — even a part time job,” Louis said. “That way you can understand the system and understand what’s going on.”
Experts in the new immigration process suggest that the sponsor have the application for a work authorization, Form I-765, in hand, so that the beneficiary can complete and return the form the day after arrival. The USCIS processing time for the application was not clear at the time of publication. It has taken, in the past, as much as six months to process the EAD.
Currently, the U.S. is looking mostly for people with core work skills, said Lant Pritchett of Labor Mobility Partnerships, an economic think tank, on NPR’s All Things Considered radio show recently. With employment trends changing in the U.S., there’s an increase in the number of jobs to be filled, particularly in the hospitality and labor sectors.
Logistics remain puzzling
The logistics before, during and after this process may be uncharted territory.
Sainfort, the TPS recipient seeking to bring in his daughter, needs to obtain travel authorization to return to Haiti. He, as her legal guardian, must accompany his daughter to the U.S. Though he looks forward to the return to see his family, the logistics and cost are one more item to work through.
If that goes well, once they arrive in New Jersey, he has concerns typical of any father. Who will watch over his daughter after school while he’s at work? Will her English be adequate in school? Will she miss her BFF, her cousin, that she lived with?
In Virginia, Wires, hearing the dangers and difficulties that Andres’ wife recently went through to get to a doctor’s appointment in Port-au-Prince, is incentivized to move the sponsorship process along faster. She has thought about receiving Andre’s family to her home, then helping them settle in a lower-cost location with more employment opportunities — such as Indianapolis or Detroit, both with growing Haitian populations.
The couple in Central Florida wonders how they’ll tell the older brother that they plan to help his younger sibling because the latter’s work ethic is better suited for life in America.
“I don’t want someone to feel like, “I can’t do this,” said Louis, thinking of less enterprising beneficiaries.
“No, if you come here, there are so many things to build on in this beautiful place, the United States,” Louis added. “There’s no doubt, if someone comes here, they will be successful if they work smart and hard.”
For Bobo in Boston, the days since his arrival have been filled with activity as he settles in. This week, he’s applying for jobs. Although he’s been trained to work in media, he wants a job — any job. And, with the mother of his child still in Haiti, he continues to search for a sponsor for her.
“We are happy to live the dream. But we are sad for Haiti because we have many friends like us who stay and who deserve a better life,” said Bobo. “There is joy and sadness at the same time for us.”