This Haitian Heritage Month, Haitian immigrants and advocates are speaking out against President Donald Trump and his administration, which will decide the fate of the 50,000 Haitian immigrants who currently reside in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
In actions across Florida this past weekend, activists asked the Trump administration to extend TPS.
It is unclear when Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly will issue his decision. News outlets have reported he has until May 23; however, Sharon Scheidhauer, a public affairs officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), told Rewire in an email on Monday that there “is no May deadline for the decision.”
“The TPS statute requires that the Secretary shall provide on a timely basis for the publication of a Federal Register notice regarding his determination as to whether the country conditions for a country’s TPS designation continue to be met. DHS aims to publish the notice as soon as possible between the time that the Secretary makes his decision and the end of the current designation period (July 22, 2017 for Haiti),” Scheidhauer said.
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Meanwhile, Unite Here, a union representing thousands of Haitian immigrants who work primarily in Florida’s hotel and food service industries, has organized actions to protest “growing concerns that the Trump administration may not renew or extend Haitian legal worker status,” according to a press statement.
Nearly 2,000 people attended an event in Orlando where community leaders called for not only an extension of Haitians’ TPS, but also an extension of asylum protections to Haiti, according to local reports.
The Trump administration looking to end TPS is not a surprise, given the administration’s push to ramp up detainment and deportation of undocumented people. However, on a September campaign stop, Trump said he would be one of Haitian immigrants’ “greatest champions.”
On Saturday, one organizer at the Orlando event reportedly told the crowd: “No Haitians—no great America.”
“If [Trump] has a problem with Black people—with Haitians, he needs to say that; he needs to say he has a problem with us and not pretend this is about anything else,” Gerdine Vessagne, a housekeeper in Miami Beach and a TPS recipient, told Rewire. “I think he has a problem with Black immigrants. Why is he trying to destroy us? Why? Why does he want to destroy us? He’s going after Haitians.”
The Associated Press (AP) reported last week that an official in the Trump administration is digging for “unorthodox” information on Haitian TPS recipients as it considers the extension: crime data and information related to public benefits.
The AP obtained internal memos in which a “top immigration official wanted not only crime data on Haitians who are protected from deportation under the Temporary Protected Status program, but also how many were receiving public benefits. Such immigrants aren’t eligible for welfare benefits.”
A DHS spokesperson told the AP that criminal history and other information requested won’t be used to make a final decision about TPS, but rather that the information was requested “so that Kelly could have a fuller understanding of who is in the program.”
Rachel Gumpert, an organizer with Unite Here, told Rewire that the Trump administration is looking to use crime data to “spin a false narrative” about Haitian immigrants, the way he has done with Mexican immigrants, in order to justify the “inhumane” removal of TPS.
“These wholesale attacks on immigrant communities really show Trump’s lack of understanding in how much immigrants contribute to this country,” Gumpert said. “Haitian immigrants have put down deep roots in the United States. They are gainfully employed, working legally, and contributing to their local economies in huge ways. Florida tourism is run by Haitian immigrants. If TPS is removed, all of these people will lose legal status and given how Trump has demonized undocumented immigrants, it’s ironic that he would willfully create a situation where he would remove status from 50,000 people.”
When asked by Rewire why information regarding criminal data was requested and whether it was being used for decision-making surrounding TPS, the USCIS spokesperson sidestepped the question entirely, saying only that the agency does not discuss “pre-decisional documents.”
Haitian migrants were first given TPS in 2010 by the Obama administration after one of the region’s most destructive earthquakes affected an estimated 3 million people and killed more than 200,000. The administration later renewed the extension after Hurricane Matthew last year, which decimated the southern region of the nation; killing 1,000 people, leaving a cholera outbreak in its wake, and halting reconstruction work ongoing after the earthquake. The last extension of protected status for Haitian immigrants in the United States is set to expire July 22.
Many Haitian migrants who traveled to the United States after the authorization of TPS were placed in slower deportation proceedings, and given permission to remain in the country for as long as three years under a humanitarian parole provision. These are the people the Trump administration would deport.
For women like Vessagne, removing TPS would be devastating. The mother of five, including two U.S. citizen children, obtained a union job, a driver’s license, has been going to school, and supporting family in the United States and Haiti all because of TPS.
Vessagne has been in the country for nearly nine years, arriving before the earthquake. Her sister, a police officer, had been threatened and attacks were made on her entire family, so she migrated to the United States for safety.
“I never came to stay for good, but the earthquake happened and I had to stay,” Vessagne said. “If TPS is removed, I will not be able to have a place to live, I will not be able to feed my children. I do not know what will happen to my children here in the United States. Nothing I have, none of my papers, would be valid. I will lose my job, lose my license. I will lose everything.”
Haitian immigrants have had some unlikely supporters in recent weeks. The Walt Disney Company said in a statement that “given the current situation in Haiti we support efforts to extend the Temporary Protected Status for Haitian nationals. The more than 500 cast members who are currently part of this program have been and are an important part of our Walt Disney World workforce in Central Florida,” the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Late last month, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) and a bipartisan group of South Florida lawmakers sent a letter to Kelly, asking the Trump administration to extend Haitians’ TPS. One of the letter’s supporters was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who during his 2016 presidential bid proposed anti-immigrant policies. His presidential campaign also took money from private prison companies that run immigrant detention centers.
“This would be inhumane, but from a more pragmatic standpoint, it really is just bad for business and bad for the economy,” Gumpert of Unite Here said about deporting 50,000 Haitian immigrants.
TPS greatly helps the United States, according to the American Immigration Council (AIC). “Haitian beneficiaries contribute nearly $280 million each year to the gross domestic product. TPS beneficiaries submit to rigorous background and security checks when they apply for and renew their benefits; those with serious criminal histories are denied TPS,” Royce Murray notes on the AIC’s Immigration Impact website.
“Removing TPS won’t just have an impact in Haitian-dense areas like Florida, New York, and Boston, it will have deep ramifications across the country. The tourism and hospitality industries will be decimated,” Gumpert said. “And if Trump thinks that he will just issue a notice and 50,000 people will willingly leave a country they now call home and have deep roots in, he has another thing coming.”