Brooklyn, New York – When Jean, a 28-year-old Haitian living in Florida, first came to the US, he was afraid to live in a high-rise building.
It was residual fear, he said, from the 2010 earthquake he survived in Port-au-Prince.
“I had just finished rehearsal, singing and dancing, because I’m an opera singer, and then it happened,” said Jean, who did not want to disclose his last name.
“At the time, I was in an old wooden house and half of it went down … It was so traumatising, I couldn’t even cry right away. Everything went white.”
After a day-long walk through the urban wreckage, around bodies and anguished fellow citizens, Jean finally reached his house and reunited with his sister.
“My mom was in the US, but wasn’t established yet. My sister and I went to Santo Domingo. We slept in the airport before we finally got a flight,” he said.
In the US, the three became part of the 50,000 Haitians granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) after the disaster, which killed 300,000 people and displaced 1.5 million.
Uncertain future for TPS
The special status, created by Congress in 1990, is given to countries where war, natural disaster, or other extraneous circumstances make it too perilous for individuals to return.
It grants residency, work permits, and driver’s licences to Haitians who had started living in the US before or within a year after the earthquake. The programme had been renewed in 18-month installments under the Obama administration.
“With my family, we support each other,” said Jean, who studies music and physical therapy at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale while working as a bartender. “Every time they allow us to renew, it’s just a relief to us.”
Jean and thousands of other Haitians are currently waiting to hear if the status, which expires on July 22, will be renewed under the Trump administration. It has been publicly quiet on the renewal of the status, even as a bipartisan coalition of US senators and Congress members petition for the programme’s extension.
Advocates said the new administration’s lack of dialogue on the issue is disconcerting. Under the Obama administration, the last extension was announced six months before the expiration date.
More pressingly, the acting director of US Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), a Department of Homeland Security agency, recommended that the status not be renewed in an internal letter, USA Today reported last week.
In the letter, James McCament, the USCIS acting director, concluded that while Haiti has not completely recovered from the earthquake, it was stable enough to end the status, the news organisation reported.
John Kelly, the Homeland Security secretary, will make the final determination. He had not made a decision as of April 21, a spokesperson told Al Jazeera English.
For Jean, every day without an answer becomes harder.
“If something like that is cut, I have no words for it,” he said.
“You lose your job, you lose your dream. You can’t even go to school. Everything stops.”
Beleaguered Haiti still in recovery
Rights groups say the Caribbean nation has not healed from the earthquake. The stalled recovery has been complicated by a cholera epidemic introduced by UN peacekeepers from Nepal. Hurricane Matthew, which hit in October 2016, made matters worse. The circumstances, they argue, should keep Haitians eligible for the special status.
“This is a country that has been hit by sledgehammer blows,” said Steven Forester, the Immigration Policy Coordinator for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
Forester said an estimated 500,000 people in Haiti, a country of 10 million, rely on money sent by Haitians on TPS in the US.
To date, about 9,000 people have died from cholera since the epidemic began and 780,000 others have been affected by the disease, according to the UN. A fund created by the UN in December has raised only about $2.6m of the $400m outlined in a plan for recovery.
TPS was designed for exactly the type of extraordinary and temporary circumstances that these calamities exemplify.
About 1.5 million people were left homeless after the earthquake. When Hurricane Matthew hit, more than 55,000 of those Haitians were still living in some 30 camps across the country, according to Amnesty International. The hurricane left an additional 175,000 people without homes.
“The idea that nothing has happened to Haiti since the earthquake is absurd and without fact,” Forester said.
“TPS was designed for exactly the type of extraordinary and temporary circumstances that these calamities exemplify.”
Plantain, cacao, and other food crops in the country’s “green belt” were also destroyed by floodwaters strong enough to carry away cattle during the storm.
With the average household spending more than half of their income on food, many residents cannot afford to send their children to school, according to Jean Michel Vigreux, Port-au-Prince-based country director for the aid group CARE.
“Haitians are proud about getting their kids to school,” Vigreux said. “They are willing to make a lot of sacrifices, but this is a big concern for them. It’s a loss for the children.”
Helping family back in Haiti
In the US, Haitians on TPS contribute to the economy and pay taxes, noted 25-year-old George, who moved to Brooklyn in New York City from the Haitian capital two weeks after the earthquake. He asked that his last name not be used.
“It’s really alarming,” said George, who works in finance. “So many people have contributed so much to the economy. Not only do we help people in the community here, we help to support people back home.”
George said few people would be willing to return to Haiti if the status is not renewed.
“In terms of logistics, why would you make thousands of people undocumented and unable to work legally?”
A study by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center found that Haitians on TPS earn about $280m a year in wages and contribute about $35m a year to social security.
The largest property service workers’ union in the US has also urged officials to renew the status. The industry, along with healthcare and construction, employs a large number of Haitians on TPS.
Fear resonates across Haitian communities, said Farah Larrieux, a community advocate in Florida who is on TPS.
“Some people are already afraid to go to school, or work, or church for fear they’ll run into an immigration official,” said Larrieux, 38, who owns a marketing company and also works at a casino near Miami.
Trump’s campaign support for Haitian Americans
In a September campaign stop in Little Haiti, Miami, President Trump promised to be Haitian Americans’ “biggest champion”. He often used the disorganised rebuilding efforts in Haiti to criticise Hillary Clinton, who was US Secretary of State at the time of the earthquake. Her husband, Bill Clinton, was appointed to a commission that oversaw recovery efforts and the Clinton Foundation has been heavily involved in the country.
“We have to admit, Haitians were tired of the Clintons,” Larrieux said. “We wanted someone new to talk to. Trump made a promise.”
Is this the same type of politician that uses a community to get their votes, and once he wins the presidential election, forgets about them?
Larrieux said many Haitians now feel Trump used the Haitian voting block in Florida, a key swing state, for his own gains.
“Trump promotes himself as an outsider and that he’s there to change things,” Larrieux said. “Is this the same type of politician that uses a community to get their votes, and once he wins the presidential election, forgets about them?“
In September last year, the Obama administration resumed deportations of undocumented Haitians who had been not convicted of serious crimes or deemed a national security threat – a controversial decision derided by rights groups. The deportations had been suspended following the earthquake. From October 2016 to January 16, 2017, about 1,500 Haitians were deported from the US, a US immigration official told Reuters.
Meanwhile, thousands of Haitians who left after the earthquake continue to journey from Central and South America to the border of the US.
Advocates of stricter immigration policies say the deportations justify ending TPS.
“TPS, if anything, should be reserved for cases where it simply isn’t physically practical to return people to a country. That’s not the case any more for Haiti,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think-tank that advocates for tighter controls on immigration. “We continue to deport other illegal immigrants from Haiti who didn’t get TPS. If that’s happening, then there’s no possible justification for maintaining TPS for other groups of Haitians.”
Approaching expiration date
Many Haitians are exploring other options to stay in the country legally as the expiration date approaches.
Tanael Joachim, 28, a comedian from Brooklyn who is on TPS, said he’s already started working with a lawyer to apply for a competitive visa reserved for “aliens of extraordinary ability”.
“I don’t want to be there and July comes, and I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m trying to prepare.”
As the deadline grows closer, the threat of family separation looms, said Marie, a 26-year-old Brooklyn resident on TPS. She asked that her last name not be used for fear of being targeted by immigration officials.
Marie, a college graduate who works with immigrant youth, said she, her father, who is a bus driver, and her stepmother are all on the status, but her eight-year-old and 14-year-old sisters were born in the US.
“It’s very scary and very frustrating,” said Marie, who is originally from Port-au-Prince. “We’ve made our lives here, we contribute to society. We pay taxes.”
Sending a person like my mother from the US to Haiti, where she knows nobody, is like sending her to die.
With no other family in the US, Marie said her parents would have to decide whether to take their daughters – who are US citizens – back to Haiti, where they have never lived, or to stay in the US with them despite not having documentation.
“My sisters are aware of what’s happening,” she said. “They watch the news. They’re scared my parents won’t be able to stay here and they don’t know what will happen after that.”
In Fort Meyers, Florida, Keny Charles, 23, is plagued by similar concerns. He dropped out of college to support his ailing mother. Both are on TPS. But Charles plans to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. His lawyer says he’s eligible, because he was brought to the US from Aquin, Haiti, when he was just six.
His mother, Kettelie Micard, 50, who is also on TPS, requires dialysis three times a week. If she becomes undocumented, it would affect her healthcare and she could possibly be deported to Haiti, where she has no family, Charles said.
“Every time I wake up, and I see how my mom looks, and how she’s feeling, every day that gives me a drive,” said Charles, who works sterilising medical instruments at a local hospital.
“Sending a person like my mother from the US to Haiti, where she knows nobody, is like sending her to die,” he added. “I’m not gonna let that happen, and God is good. He’s not going to let that happen.”