Baltimore City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett takes issues affecting Haitians in America personally. One would expect nothing less since his wife, Vanessa, is Haitian, and given the couple took in several desperate relatives from the decimated island nation in the aftermath of its catastrophic earthquake in January 2010. Some were injured and had been forced to sleep on the streets outside the capital city of Port-au-Prince before making their way to Baltimore.
“You can still see the remnants of the earthquake,” said Burnett, who has traveled to Haiti several times over the past three years. “People are still living in temporary shelters and tents, especially in Port-au-Prince, and the infrastructure is still badly damaged, which is why it takes a lot of time to travel through the country,” explained Burnett, noting the unrepaired damage to roads and bridges. “A lot of people are still looking for work and are selling whatever they can sell to put some food on the table.”
Burnett’s family is among many concerned and impacted by news that the Trump administration has denied the extension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to more than 58,000 Haitian nationals currently residing in the United States. The decision, coming just prior to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Thanksgiving deadline, will force Haitian TPS recipients to leave the country within the 18-month period following the January 22 expiration of the program. The program, which currently applies to 10 nations and roughly 437,000 people nationwide, permits those from countries experiencing civil unrest, violence or natural disaster to reside and work in the United States until it is safe or reasonable for them to return home.
Given the well-documented and ongoing instability in Haiti — a situation worsened by an expanding cholera epidemic and additional damage from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 — Burnett had recently introduced a resolution to the Baltimore Council calling on the federal government to allow those affected to remain in the United States by extending Haiti’s TPS designation. The councilman was far from alone in drawing attention to the potential dangers Haitian TPS recipients face, as advocates from all sides of the political spectrum, including Haitian president Jovenel Moise, had asked the Trump administration for an 18-month extension.
“If TPS is not extended, Haitians sent home will face dire conditions, including lack of housing, inadequate health services and low prospects for employment,” wrote U.S. Senator Marco Rubio in a recent editorial in the Miami Herald. The prominent Republican and former presidential candidate represents Florida, the state with the most Haitian TPS recipients at 32,500, with 81 percent of them employed. “Failure to renew the TPS designation will weaken Haiti’s economy and impede its ability to recover completely and improve its security,” continued Rubio, noting that “South Florida has benefited greatly from the remarkable contributions made by many Haitian Americans in politics, business and culture.”
“As soon as they got their TPS status, many became nurses, LPNs, attorneys and other professionals who are contributing,” said Francesca Menes, director of policy and advocacy for the Florida Immigrant Coalition and a national steering committee member of the Black Immigration Network. Born and raised in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood to Haitian immigrants, Menes pointed out that an important “part of the conversation that’s been left out of the narrative is it’s not just about the economic impact at the federal level, but about the local impact.”
Menes highlighted how recipients got jobs, loans, opened businesses and became important components of the state economy in Florida because of the stability granted by TPS. “This is not a partisan issue,” stressed Menes, noting numerous congressional efforts to remedy the situation prior to Trump’s decision and the widespread support from the likes of Florida’s Republican governor and Trump supporter, Rick Scott. “You have both of our U.S. senators, Republican and Democrat, making statements, you have the U.S. Chamber of Commerce commenting about this, you have the restaurant and lodging bureaus in Miami making statements, you have Disney, for God’s sake, saying ‘we need you to protect our workers’ because these Haitians with TPS work for Disney, one of the biggest employers in the state.”
Still, there were indicators along the way that such powerful voices were falling on deaf ears.
“DHS’s guidance remains unchanged for Haitians with TPS,” said US Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesperson Sharon Scheidhauer in a late September statement to The Intercept. “Beneficiaries are encouraged to prepare for their return to Haiti in the event Haiti’s designation is not extended again, including requesting updated travel documents from the government of Haiti.”
“The politics of the current administration have been deeply troubling,’ said Burnett, noting how his relatives and other hardworking Haitians rely on TPS as a way to send and carry desperately-needed earnings and resources from America to struggling relatives in Haiti. “It is important that we keep our borders open,” insisted Burnett, “especially for people who are trying to support themselves.”
For many Haitians, supporting themselves has not been easy. The 2010 earthquake killed over 300,000 people and annihilated the country’s infrastructure, prompting a humanitarian crisis and the Obama administration’s designation of TPS to Haitian nationals in the U.S. for 18 months. Further extensions were granted in subsequent years given the lack of Haitian recovery, the dearth of opportunity and employment, the spread of disease and the damage from tropical storms, flooding and hurricanes.
On September 16, 2016, during the final stretch of one of the most controversial presidential elections in recent history, then-candidate Donald Trump made a campaign stop in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, where he met with a small crowd at the Little Haiti Cultural Center’s marketplace and visitor center. After trashing Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and criticizing her and former president Bill Clinton’s record on Haiti, Trump offered, “Whether you vote for me or not, I really want to be your biggest champion.”
“People don’t know this, or don’t care to recognize it, but most of the people in that room were not from Little Haiti,” clarified Menes, who was in attendance that day, not as an invited supporter, but a protestor. “These were Haitian Republicans from Palm Beach County who drove an hour to meet and pretend it was the Haitian community in Little Haiti that invited this man here,” said Menes, noting “we didn’t want him in our community.”
In May 2017, members of the Congressional Black Caucus sent a letter to then-DHS secretary John Kelly pushing for another 18-month extension, highlighting ongoing recovery difficulties from natural disasters and the cholera epidemic. In a May 22 statement, Kelly extended Haiti’s TPS designation for the minimum allowance of six months past its previous expiration date of July 22. Touting such indicators of Haitian recovery as an improving economy, the closing of internally displaced person camps, and “stated plans to rebuild the Haitian President’s residence at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince,” Kelly determined “this six-month extension should allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States, and should also provide the Haitian government with the time it needs to prepare for the future repatriation of all current TPS recipients.”
Those “necessary arrangements” are now a stark reality for many Haitians in America. Yet Menes, although hurt by the decision, believes all is not lost given a possible solution could still come from the legislative process and the numerous bills aimed at remedying the situation. “We basically have 18 months to do work,” said Menes, noting her involvement in “Protect the People Clinics where we’ve been working with our local bar associations to have attorneys review people’s cases one-by-one and see if there are opportunities for people to adjust their status.”
That said, Menes is clear where her priorities lie given the need for a collective solution for the tens of thousands Haitian TPS recipients and their families facing an uncertain and potentially dangerous future. So, she acknowledged, “We have 18 months to try and make legislative history.”