The word on the street is that President Barack Obama is seriously weighing whether or not to reverse the Bush Administration’s decision to not grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitian immigrants living semi-openly in the US. As we reported here last January, outgoing DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff communicated the Administration’s decision to President René Préval of Haiti without providing much detail on its raison d’être. But thanks to a poorly written dispatch from the Associated Press which triggered a vocal outcry primarily from Haitians in South Florida, an issue that might have continued to remain buried in the least important to-do piles of the new President was kicked upstairs. Patrick Gaspard, the White House Director for Political Affairs, recently made a quick trip to Miami to confer with advocates for the Haitians and communicate the Administration’s concerns. How did we get there and will Obama do right by the Haitians? Let’s recapitulate.
Shortly after Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, several groups that have long advocated on behalf of Haitian refugees and immigrants began calling for a halt to deportations to Haiti. These groups – Haitian Women of Miami (FANM), the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), the Florida Immigrant Coalition, Catholic Charities, UNITE for Dignity, the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, Notre Dame D’Haiti Mission and Grace Haitian United Methodic Church – set up an online petition to broaden support. The petition, which has so far gathered 755 signatures, can be accessed here.
On February 16, AP reported that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had ordered the deportation of 30,000 Haitians. As its name indicates ICE is charged with enforcing immigration decisions: it does not make them. Thus the story was wrong. Although AP retracted the story in part a couple of days later, the original report had already spread panic in Haitian communities nationwide. Thus thousands were led to believe that ICE was singling out Haitians for stepped up deportation efforts.
That 30,000 Haitian immigrants might be subject to deportation was not hard to believe. Over the last twenty years, many have been denied legal permanent residence or refugee status and given the opportunity to self-deport. Most decided to chance staying in the US rather than take the next flight back to Haiti. And most have set roots in this country, just like the millions from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and Latin America, hoping that Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) will become a reality with Obama in power. Meanwhile Haiti has been best by a long series of man-made political and natural disasters which has greatly impoverished the country and made economic progress a difficult undertaking.
In response to the news, advocates launched a broader effort to secure a halt to deportations of Haitians and secure TPS for the 30,000 or so who would be eligible. And that’s a good thing. It has to be aggressive enough however to overpower the fear mongering of the naysayers in the Obama administration. Their typical excuse: granting TPS to Haitians will trigger a massive exodus from Haiti. This is simply crap for several reasons, the most obvious one being that with near-zero forest cover there is no way that enough boats can be built to support a “massive” exodus. Secondly, US coast guard cutters has been patrolling the waters just outside of Haiti for quite a long time and have been quick to identify boatloads of Haitian immigrants and return them promptly to Port-au-Prince. Thirdly, when President Clinton granted Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED) to Haitian immigrants in the US, DED being a modified form of TPS, there was no mass exodus from Haiti. In fact there has been no mass exodus from Haiti in the last 15 years!
Most of the major US Newspapers have argued that Haitians should be granted TPS. They include the NY Times, the NY Daily News, the Washington Post among others. National groups, such as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the NAACP, the National Immigration Forum and several state-wide immigration coalitions have affirmed or reaffirmed support for the temporary measure. Representative Alcee Hastings (D-FL) has sponsored a bill that has so far gathered the support of about 40 of his colleagues.
Yet this may not be enough to move President Obama to do right by Haitians. While he has renewed his commitment to seeing CIR become a reality sooner rather than later following a meeting with the entire Congressional Hispanic Caucus, he has also indicated his intention to proceed cautiously and preference for not doing things piecemeal.
TPS for Haitians is not a given under the Obama Administration. Haitian advocates have weak advocacy presence in Washington, even though they may have sympathetic ears. Sustained and visible advocacy in Washington is now called for both to pressure the Administration and ensure that major civil rights and immigrants rights groups insist on TPS for Haitians as a down payment on the broader immigration reform agenda that should be in play later this year.