Haitians Wary Of Washington Moves To End Special Immigration Status

May 29, 2017

Some 58,000 Haitians in the United States, including some in Rhode Island, have received a six-month extension of their special immigration status, known as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. It was first granted after Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake in 2010.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has given strong indications that the program could end in January. Kelly said he was encouraged by Haiti’s progress in recovering from the earthquake. And he said Haitians here on TPS should use the next 6 months to get ready to go home. 

In Rhode Island, Haitian activist Bernard Georges disputed that optimistic assessment of his native country. Georges, who runs the non-profit New Bridges for Haitian Success, said the damage from a cholera epidemic after the earthquake and then Hurricane Matthew last October continues to hobble the Haitian government. “The devastation from multiple natural disasters," said Georges, "affects government institutions. We can’t afford to have all these folks going back to Haiti.”

In a statement announcing the 6-month extension, the DHS said the Haitian government had expressed a  "desire to welcome the safe repatriation of Haitian TPS recipients in the near future." Representatives of the Haitian government, though, say they had hoped for an 18-month extension from the U.S., not just 6 months. The Haitian ambassador to Washington told Le Nouvelliste newspaper in Canada that he and other officials weren’t sure their economy could handle a surge of expatriates that soon.

TPS allows immigrants to live and work in the US, and many workers send money back home to Haiti. These so-called remittances provide much-needed funds for the country. In fact, a recent study by the World Bank estimated that 25% of Haiti's GDP came from such remittances from workers abroad. Advocates of TPS extension say it's termination would be a double blow to Haiti, to lose that money from the US and have to absorb thousands of Haitians coming home.

Critics of the TPS program say the “temporary” part of the acronym is being ignored. They say conditions in Haiti will never be "perfect" and they're pushing the federal government to terminate special immigration protections for Haitians.

Immigration attorney Carl Krueger works with the immigrant and refugee service organization Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island. He said he’s advised his TPS clients to be ready. “Prepare for the worst case scenario," he told them, "which is going be that this program is in fact going to end, and, worst case, the government is then going to start removal proceedings, or deportation proceedings, against people.”

Still, said Krueger, even though President Donald Trump expressed his administration's intention to remove people without legal status, it would not be that easy. “They really don’t have the resources to do a lot of these things that they say they’re going to do," said Krueger. "You know, this business about the mass deportation of anybody who’s in the United States illegally. They don’t have the resources to do that.”

If protected status for Haitians ends in January, it will make many more immigrants nervous. Hundreds of thousands of people from 9 other countries currently remain here on TPS. They worry their status may come under scrutiny next. If they're terminated, attorney Krueger imagined what that would mean. "A lot of people are just going to go back to the way it was before," he said. "They’re going to go back into the shadows.”

The expiration dates for TPS for Salvadorans and Hondurans come up early next year.