The Trump administration has only a few weeks left to decide whether to extend the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program to roughly 55,000 Haitians who are at risk of deportation back to a country that hasn’t yet recovered from a series of natural disasters.
The TPS program, which is set to expire on July 22, is up for renewal later this month. Immigration experts and advocates are worried that President Donald Trump’s harsh approach to immigration policies will mean he will seek to undo the legal status of tens of thousands of people who have rebuilt their lives in the United States since a devastating earthquake roiled Haiti in 2010.
Created by Congress in 1990, the TPS program gives temporary immigration status to foreign nationals living in the United States who cannot go back home because of war, natural disasters, or other extraordinary circumstances that make it too dangerous or difficult to return. TPS was renewed three times in 18-month increments during the former Obama administration.
While they have status under the program, TPS beneficiaries cannot be deported, can legally work in the country, and come in and out of the country. The status is temporary, but beneficiaries of the program can apply for other legal avenues to stay in the United States.
But now, acting director James McCament of the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has recommended against reauthorizing TPS status for Haitians living in the United States. McCament said that conditions have improved enough for Haitians to return and that the current program should only be extended until January 2018 to allow for “a period of orderly transition.”
The facts on the ground say otherwise, however. Haiti has only made some recovery efforts since the 2010 earthquake which killed anywhere between 220,000 to 316,000 people. But hundreds of thousands of people there are still homeless after the disaster leveled buildings and displaced 1.5 million people. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew again rocked the country — damaging infrastructure, claiming more than 1,000 lives, and leading to a clean-up effort that introduced cholera, which then killed more than 9,000 people.
The Congressional Black Caucus has urged U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to extend TPS for current Haitians, pointing to the continued lack of food security after Hurricane Matthew uprooted trees, eroded topsoil, and destroyed necessary agricultural equipment and seeds in the country’s richest agricultural regions.
“Failing to reissue TPS at this critical juncture would be a grave mistake that would mean sending tens of thousands of Haitians back to a country that is struggling with disease, nutritional insecurity, and possible natural disaster,” the letter read in part.
More than 168 national, state, and local faith-based organizations, along with 248 faith leaders across various traditions, also sent a letter to Secretary John Kelly requesting a TPS extension. Groups including Church World Services and Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc said that allowing Haitian TPS holders to remain in the United States until Haiti is more stable “honors our closely-held moral, religious, and American values to stand for the human rights and dignity of all people.”
Advocates like Dr. Paul Farmer, an American physician renowned for his humanitarian work in Haiti, is concerned that the country simply cannot support an influx of Haitians being returned.
“This morning, the water is dark brown. I wouldn’t drink it and I wouldn’t bathe in it,” Farmer said Tuesday on a press conference call.
Speaking from a “medical point of view,” Farmer pointed to the lack of infrastructure like hospitals to receive critically ill or injured people, a lack of electricity to power these places, and a lack of medical staff.
“After the destruction of most of Haiti by the earthquake, there’s been a real tardiness in rebuilding these facilities,” Farmer said. “Hurricane Matthew was a wake up call.”
Advocates also worry that if TPS is revoked for Haitians, it could set off a ripple effect to take away TPS status from other beneficiaries living in the United States. Indeed, former United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director León Rodríguez said on a press call Tuesday that the Haitian TPS status is a test for the Trump administration to set “an important precedent as to what’s going to happen prospectively.”
If the Trump administration takes away TPS from Haitians, it would be easy for them to justify not renewing TPS for other beneficiaries. For example, El Salvador and Honduras are part of the designated TPS list, but they are also some of the Latin American countries often blamed by the Trump administration for unauthorized migration. Several other designated TPS countries — like Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia — are part of Trump’s Muslim travel ban that prohibits travel from these countries.