NEW YORK - The Trump administration is ending a humanitarian program that has allowed some 59,000 Haitians to live and work in the United States since an earthquake ravaged their country in 2010, Homeland Security officials said Monday.
Haitians with what is known as Temporary Protected Status will be expected to leave the United States by July 2019 or face deportation.
The decision set off immediate dismay among Haitian communities in South Florida, New York and beyond, and was a signal to other foreigners with temporary protections that they, too, could soon be asked to leave. About 320,000 people now benefit from the Temporary Protected Status program, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, and the decision Monday followed another one last month that ended protections for 2,500 Nicaraguans.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is still struggling to recover from the earthquake and relies heavily on money its expatriates send to relatives back home. The Haitian government had asked the Trump administration to extend the protected status.
“I received a shock right now,” Gerald Michaud, 45, a Haitian who lives in Brooklyn, said when he heard the news. He has been working at La Guardia Airport as a wheelchair attendant, sending money to family and friends back home. He said he feared for his welfare and safety back in Haiti now that his permission to remain in the United States was ending.
“The situation is not good in my country,” he said. “I don’t know where I am able to go.”
Haitians are the second-largest group of foreigners with temporary status. The protection is extended to people in the United States who have come from countries crippled by natural disasters or armed conflict that prevents their citizens from returning or prevents their country from adequately receiving them. The government periodically reviews each group’s status and decides whether to continue the protections.
The Obama administration renewed the protections for Haitians several times, after determining that conditions in Haiti remained precarious. But the Trump administration, which has sought greater controls on immigration, has said the program, which was intended to provide only temporary relief, has turned into a permanent benefit for tens of thousands of people.
In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said that after meeting with Haitian government officials and Haitian communities in the United States, it had decided to let the protections end.
“Since the 2010 earthquake, the number of displaced people in Haiti has decreased by 97 percent,” the statement said. “Significant steps have been taken to improve the stability and quality of life for Haitian citizens, and Haiti is able to safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens.”
The protection for Haitians was most recently extended in May, by John F. Kelly, the Homeland Security secretary at the time. He allowed only a six-month extension, a shorter one than is typical, saying that the Haitians “need to start thinking about returning.”
The decision Monday by Elaine Duke, the acting secretary, set a termination date of July 2019 to give people time to make arrangements to leave.
The largest group of Temporary Protected Status beneficiaries, nearly 200,000 people, are from El Salvador. The Department of Homeland Security is scheduled to announce next month whether it will rescind or renew protection for that country, which is plagued with gang violence and high unemployment. The protection applies to Salvadorans who were in the United States without permission on Feb. 13, 2001, and was granted after deadly earthquakes in their home country.
Though Duke ended protections for Nicaraguans last month, she decided to continue, at least for now, protections for Hondurans despite pressure from Kelly, now President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, to end them.
Others who now benefit include people from Nepal, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. In 2016, the Obama administration decided to end temporary protection for citizens from three West African countries that had been devastated by the Ebola virus several years ago.
The United States offered the protection to Haitians after the earthquake in January 2010 that killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced more than 1 million and led to a cholera outbreak. Haitians who entered the United States within a year of the disaster qualified for the status.
A variety of American groups, including the Congressional Black Caucus, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and immigrant advocacy organisations had urged the Trump administration to extend the protections again. On Monday, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called the decision “unconscionable.”
“There is no reason to send 60,000 Haitians back to a country that cannot provide for them,” he wrote on Twitter. “I am strongly urging the administration to reconsider.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said on Twitter that she had traveled to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 and after Hurricane Matthew in 2015. “So I can personally attest that Haiti is not prepared to take back nearly 60,000 TPS recipients under these difficult and harsh conditions,” she said.
Those with temporary protection constitute about half the estimated 110,000 Haitians living in the United States without permanent permission, according to the Pew Research Center. Since Kelly signalled that Haiti might lose its special designation, thousands of Haitians have crossed the border between the United States and Canada to apply for asylum in Quebec.
Nearly 30,000 children have been born in the United States to Haitians with protected status. Those children are citizens and entitled to stay. Some of their parents may seek to avoid deportation by claiming it would cause extreme hardship to a U.S.-born child, but that option is limited.
Most will soon have to make a wrenching decision: take their children back to Haiti; leave them with relatives or guardians in the United States; or remain in the country illegally and risk arrest and deportation.
Mark Silverman, an attorney and director of policy at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, said that if they are arrested, they would be entitled to deportation hearings. And contesting their cases “gives them at least seven to 10 years,” he said, because of the long backlogs in the immigration courts.
The decision is sure to be felt in Haiti, where remittances from the Haitian diaspora totalled $2.36 billion in 2016, an increase of 7 percent over the previous year, according to the World Bank. That money represented more than one-fourth of the country’s national income.
But Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which lobbies for restrictions on immigration, said cancellation of temporary protections for Haitians was “long overdue.”
“The notion that this would be reflexively renewed again and again is a corruption of the entire concept,” Stein said, adding, “it’s not a refugee program or an immigration program.”
“It’s supposed to be reviewed and it’s supposed to be temporary,” he said.
One of the younger beneficiaries of the program, Peterson Exais, barely survived the earthquake. He arrived in the United States when he was 9 years old to receive emergency medical care after surviving for days under the rubble. He endured more than a dozen surgeries and has become a promising dancer at a magnet school in Miami.
Now 17 years old, he dreams of pursuing studies at the Juilliard School.
“This is very devastating for me,” he said Monday. “I might not be able to give all that I could give back if I went back to Haiti.”