Black immigrant advocates gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol last week to tell stories of America’s Haitian communities and ask the Trump administration for a Thanksgiving “gift”: Don’t deport us.
The Department of Homeland Security has until Thursday to decide on whether to renew a temporary program that allows about 50,000 Haitians to live and work in the United States. Immigrant advocacy groups have shifted into high gear to press for an extension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), while urging legislators to devise an alternative if the DHS fails to renew protections for Haitians next week.
“Anyone traveling back to Haiti can see for themselves that these conditions are inhumane. It is truly as if it was the day after the 2010 earthquake,” Democratic Representative Yvette Clark of New York told the small group at the Capitol. Clark recently proposed a bill that would provide permanent residency for certain TPS holders if a judge determined that they would face extreme hardship upon their return.
Congress established the humanitarian relief program in 1990 to protect foreign nationals in the U.S. who cannot return to their countries because of perilous conditions after natural disasters or armed conflict. This status, which allows more than 300,000 immigrants to remain in the country, typically lasts between six and 18 months, though DHS can renew the status indefinitely if it finds extension necessary.
TPS had been an uncontroversial program with bipartisan support, but no longer. Trump administration officials have repeatedly emphasized that the program was meant to be temporary, not a back door for long-term residency. Some Honduran and Nicaraguan nationals have stayed in the U.S. for as long as 20 years under the program. But DHS has sent mixed signals on TPS recently, granting extensions for Honduran nationals but denying them to immigrants from Nicaragua.
The Haitian nationals who currently risk expulsion were granted TPS status following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that claimed the hundreds of thousands of lives and left more than a million people homeless. TPS for this group of Haitians was set to expire this summer. But during his tenure as secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly (now the White House chief of staff) informed Congress in May that the current conditions in the country merited only a six-month extension.
The extension, Kelly said, would give Haitian nationals sufficient time to plan departures. Various humanitarian groups have argued that Kelly’s determination discounts the dire situation in Haiti as well as the Haitian government’s own request for an 18-month extension.
Spared the worst of Hurricane Irma this year, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is still reeling from Hurricane Matthew, which tore through the island in 2016. The storm led to a cholera outbreak and exacerbated severe food shortages. In January, a United Nations report found that more than two million Haitians were still in need of assistance.
“This administration knows very well that the conditions [in Haiti] are not fit for human beings,” says Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami. “This renewal decision will show whether they are making decisions based off facts or just playing politics.”
Meanwhile, Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke has provided a rare glimmer of hope for the affected Haitian nationals. A long-time civil servant, Duke has worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Confirmed by the Senate with strong bipartisan support, she is likely to take a more favorable stance on TPS.
“We implore Elaine Duke not to pay attention to John Kelly’s voice in her ear.,” said Patrice Lawrence, the policy and advocacy manager for the UndocuBlack Network, a black undocumented immigrants advocacy group. “We know she wants to do the right thing.”
Yet disagreements between Trump officials and DHS continue to percolate. According to a New York Times report, the department’s Office of International Affairs division urged Duke to extend TPS for Nicaragua and Honduras, noting that the two countries might not be able to handle thousands of returnees. The office proposed an 18-month extension. However, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson informed Duke that conditions in Central America and Haiti no longer justified TPS protection. Shortly before the decision deadline, Kelly pressured Duke to expel the Hondurans and Nicaraguans, according to a Washington Post report that Duke called “seriously flawed.”
Duke ultimately deferred a decision on Honduras for six months, but cancelled TPS status for Nicaraguans, determining that the adverse conditions produced by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 no longer existed. The Nicaraguan nationals may stay in the U.S. until 2019.
Kelly’s reported attempts to strong-arm Duke has placed new scrutiny on Kirstjen Nielsen, Trump’s nominee to replace Kelly, who has not yet been confirmed. Before voting on her nomination, Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee demanded that Nielsen answer nearly 200 post-hearing questions in writing, including questions on the upcoming decisions on TPS status for Haitian and El Salvadoran nationals.
Nielsen has a reputation for her “unwavering loyalty” to Kelly.
“General Kelly has proven to be an extremely powerful figure within the administration and there are strong hints that he remains influential at the DHS,” says Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “There is reason to be suspicious of whether this administration is going to be dispassionate about anything in the immigration space.”
The committee approved her nomination last week, but it is now unlikely that the full Senate will confirm Nielsen before Thanksgiving, which would leave the TPS decision on Haitian nationals to Duke (Nielsen also faces new concerns about conflicts of interest). Will Duke continue to chart an independent course on Haiti or cave into White House pressure? Recent signals are promising. Last week, Duke reversed course on previously rejected Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) renewal applications, directing immigration services to reopen those cases.
The decision on TPS designation for Haiti might be one of Duke’s last at DHS. Despite a public request from President Trump that she remain at the agency, Duke told Kelly that she plans to resign once Nielsen is confirmed, according to the Post. However, Duke recently issued a statement indicating that she plans to stay at DHS.