Analysis Human Rights

Haitian TPS Workers in Florida Doubly Affected by Hurricane Irma (Updated)

Tina Vasquez

Immigrants face the loss of their homes and wages, like countless other Floridians, while also having to contend with the U.S. immigration system.

While Hurricane Irma largely skirted Haiti, a nation that is still recovering from the blows of a deadly 2010 earthquake and 2016 hurricane, the storm has hit Haitian immigrants residing in Florida particularly hard.

Their hurricane-related issues are compounded by the fact that for thousands of Haitian immigrants their status in this country remains in limbo as recipients of temporary protected status (TPS), which gives people from designated countries temporary permission, on humanitarian grounds, to remain and work in the United States during times of natural disaster or civil strife in their country of origin. But as their country of origin remains uninhabitable, and their current U.S. residence has been struck by disaster, not to mention the fact that their “protected status” comes with an expiration date, some TPS recipients are wondering how to get on with their lives when their future is so uncertain. And in the more immediate future, many of the state’s Haitian immigrants work in the hotel and food service industries, and Irma has become a workers’ rights issue.

Rachel Gumpert, an organizer with Unite Here, a union representing thousands of Haitian immigrants who work primarily in Florida’s hotel and food service industries, told Rewire that connecting with the union’s TPS recipients has been challenging, as many in Orlando and Miami are without internet and cell service. But from what she can see, the hurricane has only made the issue of their immigration status that more imperative. 

Haitian immigrants first received TPS in 2010 after one of the region’s most destructive earthquakes affected an estimated 3 million people and killed more than 200,000. The Obama administration last year further extended the program after Hurricane Matthew, 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. On May 22, under the Trump administration, former DHS Secretary John Kelly announced a six-month extension of TPS for Haitian immigrants, though advocates were pushing for 18 months.

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Kelly’s extension is effective until January 22, 2018, and advocates are taking his decision to mean that in the months leading up to January, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will begin mass deporting the 50,000 Haitian TPS recipients currently residing in the United States. A few months after that, ICE may begin mass deporting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients if Congress doesn’t craft legislation to override the administration’s decision to rescind the program.

Like countless other Floridians, TPS recipients had to evacuate or help family members in other parts of the state evacuate. These hotel and traveling costs were a huge expenditure for union members, who are largely hourly workers. For many of the union’s immigrant members, shelters were not exactly accessible. A local news report outlined how instructions for evacuation, including shelter information, were disseminated in English, leaving many non-English-speaking immigrants unsure of where to turn. There were also immigration enforcement concerns.

“A big issue in Miami for our TPS workers is that because the impact of the storm is more severe there, the need for shelters is much higher, but there are rumors as well as a confirmed statement from the Department of Homeland Security that [ICE] will be present at FEMA encampments,” Gumpert said. “So, our DACA workers are especially concerned about utilizing shelter resources for fear of arrest, and the same is true for many of our TPS members and their families.”

On September 6, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a statement regarding Hurricane Irma, noting that the agency would not conduct “non-criminal immigration enforcement operations in the affected area,” but that DHS law enforcement personnel “will be in the affected area to conduct search and rescue, air traffic de-confliction and public safety missions.” DHS went on to say that, “When it comes to rescuing people in the wake of Hurricane Irma, immigration status is not and will not be a factor. However, the laws will not be suspended, and we will be vigilant against any effort by criminals to exploit disruptions caused by the storm.”

Through the use of executive orders, the Trump administration has drastically expanded the group of people who it constitutes as “criminals,” extending the definition to those who are simply in the country without authorization. As TPS nears its end, Haitian immigrants may be considered criminals for simply continuing to reside here, in a country they’ve developed deep roots in during the years since TPS was first issued, including having U.S.-citizen children.

Another immediate concern for Unite Here’s TPS recipient members is the loss of wages because of Hurricane Irma.

According to Gumpert, Orlando and Miami have an “extraordinarily high” number of TPS workers in the hospitality industry. It is this population of people that essentially keeps the industry running, but that hasn’t stopped major hotel chains from treating TPS recipients poorly in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

“For the evacuation, hotels were closed to the public from Thursday of last week to this Friday, which could result in huge pay cut to workers if they aren’t paid for shifts cancelled beyond their control. Some of our employers [in Miami] have confirmed they will pay workers for the missed shifts, but the biggest employers, Hilton and Marriott, haven’t,” Gumpert said. Hilton and Marriott have not responded to Rewire requests for comment.

After the piece’s publication, Gumpert told Rewire in an email that Hilton and Marriott agreed on Thursday to pay their workers the shifts they cancelled during the hurricane. The organizer added, “There are unfortunately many other employers in Miami who haven’t committed to pay out the cancelled shifts or who even already told workers they won’t pay them, but we’re so happy that Hilton and Marriott are off that list!“

Some hotels also required workers to come in during the evacuation when the hotels were closed to the public to work on emergency readiness, without paying them time and a half, the organizer said.

Back in April, 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. But according to Gumpert, Orlando TPS recipients are losing paychecks.

“Disney Orlando closed the park for the [sixth] time ever in its history, which amounts to unpaid leave for our TPS and other members there because they are hourly,” Gumpert said, adding that employees at Disney Orlando are in the middle of a two-month wage-reopener in their contract, where all 39,000 Disney Florida workers are “bargaining for an end to the poverty pay they make.” The organizer said these employees are “largely immigrant and significantly Haitian TPS workers.” Requests to the Walt Disney Company for comment went unanswered. Gumpert confirmed post-publication that Disney Orlando agreed to pay its workers for the cancelled shifts, and that the new agreements from Hilton, Marriott, and Disney were “a result of union work.”

As Hurricane Harvey showed, natural disasters are notoriously hard on immigrant populations, which often lack the resources to evacuate and are not in a position to demand lost wages because of fears of deportation. They are also relied on by the state to provide recovery, and consequently subjected to dangerous conditions without many legal protections or health-care options.

The full extent of Hurricane Irma is still being surveyed in Florida, but immigrants like Chandeline have been doubly affected, as they face the loss of their homes and wages, while also having to contend with the U.S. immigration system. Before the storm, Chandeline, a 38-year-old TPS recipient in South Florida, told Rewire that even though the Trump administration gave Haitian immigrants six months, it appears as if ICE was already quietly deporting TPS recipients as part of their regularly scheduled immigration check-ins, sometimes taking them immediately, other times giving them 30 days to leave. This is something advocates are calling “silent raids.” Rewire is not using Chandeline’s last name at her request over concerns for her safety.

“Seventeen People May Go in, but Only Three Go Back Home”

Chandeline’s story made headlines when in May 2009, the boat she was headed to the United States on with her husband and 8-month-old daughter capsized off Palm Beach County. Her baby drowned and she and her husband were forced into immigrant detention and then prison, for a total of three months, as their daughter’s body remained in the morgue, unclaimed. Eight others died during the accident, and Chandeline risked her life a second time to help prosecute the man who overloaded the boat with at least 30 people, leading to the accident.

“The boat capsized in the middle of the night and we were in the water for five or six hours. I saw my husband with my daughter, he said, ‘I have her in my hands, don’t worry.’ I told him I was going to die. He said God would save me, but then I didn’t see him again. I only saw the sea,” Chandeline told Rewire. “I didn’t see him again until the Coast Guard came. In the boat, he said my daughter died.”

Chandeline was told that if she testified against the driver of the boat, she could obtain a U visa, a visa for victims of certain crimes who have suffered abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.

“It was not easy to testify. When you testify against someone who comes from the same country as you, it’s a big deal. They can kill me. The man who drove the boat is from the same part of Haiti as my husband. His family knows my family. We’re not too far. Testifying was a big, big risk for my family,” Chandeline said. “After I testified, a man threatened my mother, he told my mother, one month after we put this man in jail, that if he saw me, he would shoot me. I told the police that, but they did nothing. The driver [of the boat] got 14 years in prison. I told them everything they wanted to know. They said they wanted to help us get something because my baby died, but they gave us nothing.”

Chandeline was not given a U visa. Instead, she was given a social security number and authorization to work in the United States for a little over a year, but after the United States issued TPS to Haitian immigrants, she was given TPS.

“I realize now I didn’t need to testify, to risk my life, because I would have gotten a work permit anyways with TPS. When TPS happened, they released Haitians from detention,” Chandeline said.

On May 5 of this year, Chandeline went to her regularly scheduled check-in with ICE, and was given a deportation order. She had her daughter with her and did not have her passport, so ICE asked her to return on June 1 with her passport and without her daughter.

“As soon as they asked me for my passport, I knew. I knew they wanted to take me, but I’ve come too far. I pay bills. I have seven years working and paying taxes [in the United States]. Everything I have is here,” Chandeline told Rewire. “Of course I was afraid. They can take me. They are immigration; they can do anything they want to do. In front of me [that day], I saw people come [into ICE] and were asked for their passports. If they had them, [ICE] took them. If not, they were told to come back in a day or two with their passports and they were taken. I know other Haitian people who have already been sent back. No lawyer, no hearing, nothing. They send you back.”

Chandeline returned to ICE on June 1 and was told to return again, with her passport and without her child, on July 28. In what seems like a neverending back and forth, Chandeline returned to ICE on July 28 with her attorney and for reasons unknown even to her, the 38-year-old’s deportation was deferred. But there are no guarantees after January 22 when TPS ends.

As January approaches, TPS recipients like Chandeline say there are few avenues to explore for remaining in the United States.

In the immediate years after Chandeline first arrived in Florida, her father, a U.S. citizen, was going to petition for her green card, but she says she was poorly instructed by an attorney to simply take TPS, as it was “faster.” But TPS was never a permanent status, and now Chandeline has surpassed the age limit to have her father petition for a visa for her.

Trump is also supporting proposed laws advocates call “inherently racist,” such as the RAISE Act, which specifically targets the primary pathways that Black immigrants take to the United States, including the diversity visa lottery and family sponsorship.

Chandeline told Rewire that under the Obama administration, you checked in with ICE and went home shortly after; it was “not a big deal.” Now, she says, when you check in, the “lines are long. Seventeen people may go in, but only three go back home that day.”

“They are catching everybody, but how can we go back to Haiti? There are no jobs for us there. We have jobs here. TPS has been good for us, but it has also been good for the United States,” Chandeline said, growing emotional. “I make no trouble. I pay my taxes. I pay my bills. I get no help. I do nothing wrong to go back to my country. I’m a victim and I’m a survivor and I helped them find someone who was bringing people here unsafe and now they are in jail and can’t do that anymore. This is very sad for me. I suffer a lot. I lose my daughter …. We were coming to the United States to have a better life, but she died in the ocean and for more than three months, I couldn’t see her.”

Chandeline told Rewire that if the Trump administration wanted to do the right thing, and if Trump wanted to be Haitian immigrants’ “greatest champion,” as he once said, he would give TPS recipients the ability to obtain green cards.

“We have all been here for many years now. We have our homes here, our cars here, our children here. All we have is here,” Chandeline said. “Why send us back now? Let us stay. That is the right thing to do.”

UPDATE, September, 2:14 p.m.: This piece has been updated to include new information from Unite Here.

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