In January of 2010, CNN published the following assessment of the United States’ response following the devastating natural disaster that plagued the small, already disadvantaged island of Hispaniola: “U.S. wants to turn Haiti tragedy into opportunity”. The idea is the American Dream in practice, it transformed Lady Liberty’s beckoning of freedom from an idyllic appeal into palpable action.
That year, the US provided a safe haven for over 59,000 Haitians who found themselves amidst a natural and humanitarian crisis, which qualified them for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, which ensures legal permanence for victims of natural disasters or armed conflict. TPS has been previously granted to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and still remains in place for nations including El Salvador, Honduras, Syria, Nepal, and Yemen. Temporary is in the name, an important acknowledgment of the inevitable, but for Haitians, many of whom have established themselves and regained a sense of stability in their new home, the inevitable has arrived sooner than expected and rather abruptly after seven years of adaptation.
Haiti, since its inception as an independent state, has had a troubled economy and relatively little standing in the global arena due to its correspondingly little mobility from its superlative as the Western Hemisphere’s most destitute country. The reliant cycle Haiti has made earnest but ultimately futile efforts to break away from has plagued it since its slave uprising devolved into a 12-year conflict with France in 1804 which left the newly formed nation war-ravaged and indebted. Slaves not by name, but slaves nonetheless, just shy of a century later, in 1900, Haiti was still spending 80% of its national budget to meet reparations demanded by their Napoleon-era French motherland.
The nation was not spared a series of unfortunate events which kept it entrenched in its low status and another century later, Haiti was still experiencing economic instability with its unemployment rate at 50% in 2010, just before the devastating earthquake which left about 400,000 citizens displaced from their homes.
Seven years later, the reality for many Haitian TPS holders has become remarkably different. 69.2% of these recipients are employed and actively contributing to the American economy and the Center for American Progress reports that ⅓ of Salvadoran, Honduran, and Haitian TPS holders own mortgages. The Haitian government recently asked the current administration for an extension to the current protected status not without cause.
The Haitian government also benefits economically from the presence of employed Haitian immigrants in the country which yielded in 2016 alone $2.36 billion in sums of money sent back to relatives still on the island, known as remittances. TPS holders often leave many of their relatives behind in the slowly deteriorating conditions which they themselves escaped which introduces a nuanced sentimental and humanitarian element to the current dilemma.
27,000 Haitian TPS holders have US-born children, citizens who will remain so despite the eventual termination of their parents’ legal residence in the US. When TPS is rescinded, as it was one month ago for 2,500 Nicaraguans, recipients can either return to their home country or remain and risk deportation as illegal immigrants. As dusk nears on July 22, 2019, this heart wrenching, impossible decision will be made by 59,000 Haitian immigrants.
Temporary is in the name, but the expectation of a nearing end hardly makes the choice any easier for parents and patriots who have come to cherish the land that extended its right hand in compassion for their sorrows.
Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, is cognizant of the fragile and complex nature of the work she inherited from John F. Kelly, the President’s current Chief of Staff who abrasively warned Haitian TPS holders six months ago that they should begin “thinking about returning”. Duke has not succumbed to White House pressure to rescind TPS for Honduras or to endorse Kirstjen M. Nielson, the President’s new appointee to the secretary position. The Senate Homeland Security Committee held Nielson’s confirmation hearing on November 8th but postponed the vote, leaving additional uncertainty for many.
Still, one thing remains frightfully certain. The government periodically reviews each country’s status, gauges their need for assistance, and decides whether to continue offering protections under TPS. In spite of vehement opposition from Democrats and even from Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen who tweeted that she could “personally attest that #Haiti is not prepared to take back nearly 60,000 #TPS recipients”, Haitians will be asked to return to Haiti, an island still ravaged and inadequately equipped to receive them home. It’s not only a hindrance to the economic growth and resilience the world hopes is still in store for the small country but a terrifying fate to face for individuals and their families.