The United States will expand temporary protection against deportation to Haitian citizens already in the country, the Department of Homeland Security announced on Saturday, in a move that was welcomed by immigration advocates as “long overdue”.
Temporary Protected Status (TPS) shields migrants from designated nations from deportation and grants them work permits in the US on the basis that it would be unsafe to return them to their home countries due to a crisis, such as armed conflict or a natural disaster.
The new, 18-month designation will apply to Haitians who have been living in the US as of May 21, and who also meet other eligibility criteria, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Majorkas said in a statement.
“Haiti is currently experiencing serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mayorkas said.
“After careful consideration, we determined that we must do what we can to support Haitian nationals in the United States until conditions in Haiti improve so they may safely return home.”
Former US President Donald Trump had sought to cancel TPS for Haiti in 2018, but his efforts were blocked by the courts.
Lawmakers and immigration advocates have urged President Joe Biden, who took office in January on a promise to reverse some of Trump’s most hardline, anti-immigration policies, to expand the programme. TPS was first offered to Haitians after a 2010 earthquake devastated the country.
Dozens of people in the US state of Florida, home to a large Haitian community in and around Miami, protested this week to demand a TPS programme extension, local media outlets reported.
The new TPS designation will “keep approximately 150,000 [Haitian] individuals from harm’s way”, Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a written statement.
“As Haiti passes through an acute political and security crisis and faces enduring humanitarian challenges, this decision provides urgently needed protections for eligible Haitians in the United States,” he said.
Haiti has experienced months of political instability and increasing violence, and it is also struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier this year, Haitians took to the streets in demonstrations about the disputed mandate of President Jovenel Moise, whose term most legal experts and civil society groups said ended on February 7. But the president and his supporters have insisted that his five-year term only expires in 2022.
“Today’s news is the result of countless hours of organising, advocacy, and mobilization among Black immigrant leaders,” said Patrice Lawrence, co-director of the UndocuBlack Network, an advocacy group of current and former undocumented Black people in the US.
“But while we celebrate today’s news, we know the work is only beginning. Other majority-Black countries, including Cameroon, Mauritania, Bahamas and St. Vincent, also must receive TPS designation immediately,” Lawrence said in a statement.
“I am overjoyed for the 150K families that can sleep soundly tonight knowing that they are safe thanks to TPS being re designated for Haiti. Grateful, hopeful, and ecstatic,” Guerline Jozef of the Haitian Bridge Alliance community group, tweeted.
The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES-Texas) rights group also said the decision “was long overdue” but that more work needs to be done to protect TPS holders.
“Without TPS redesignation, Haitians have been living in uncertainty for the past several months. In the future, that uncertainly could be solved by a permanent fix through legislation that puts TPS holders on the path to citizenship,” the group tweeted.
Without TPS redesignation, Haitians have been living in uncertainty for the past several months. In the future, that uncertainly could be solved by a permanent fix through legislation that puts TPS holders on the path to citizenship.
— RAICES (@RAICESTEXAS) May 22, 2021
Separately, migration advocates had raised alarm earlier this year about reports that the Biden administration was sending Haitian migrants back to Haiti under Title 42, a public health directive put in place by former President Donald Trump.
The Haitian Bridge Alliance, Quixote Center and UndocuBlack said about 1,200 people had been sent back to Haiti after trying to enter the US at the country’s southern border with Mexico between February 1 and March 25.
“Haitian migrants flee violence, instability and persecution in Haiti, then travel a long and treacherous journey to the U.S.-Mexico border seeking safety and security in the United States,” Nicole Phillips, legal director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, said in a statement accompanying a report on the Title 42 expulsions (PDF).
“Instead of security, they are abused by immigration officers and – under the Title 42 policy – summarily expelled back to the country they fled without any chance to seek protection. As this report explains, these expulsions are not only tragic, they are illegal.”
Haitian asylum seekers have also been returned to Mexico under Title 42, and they have complained of racism and harassment in Mexican border towns.
But despite the challenges they face in Mexico, Haitian migrants told Al Jazeera last month that they have no other option but to stay.
“My family had nothing in Haiti, no house, no food, no money,” said Edile Eglaus, a Haitian asylum seeker who lives at a migrant shelter on the outskirts of Tijuana with his wife and their two children. “No matter what, returning to that is impossible.”