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Trump to 59,000 Haitians: you have 18 months to pack your bags

As of July 2019, Haitians living in the US — often for more than a decade — will lose humanitarian protections to stay here.

Miami Area's Haitian Community Awaits Decision On Haitian Temporary Protected Status Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Trump administration is telling 59,000 Haitians, currently living legally in the United States, to self-deport. But it’s giving them until July 22, 2019, to do it.

On Monday night, officials from the Department of Homeland Security announced that the government will stop allowing Haitian nationals to get Temporary Protected Status — an immigration program that allows people from a certain country living in the US to remain and work here while their home countries recover from disaster.

The decision ends a period of limbo Haitians have been under since May, when the administration announced it would extend Haitians’ TPS for six more months but strongly implied that Haitians should “get their affairs in order” and plan to leave when the six months were up.

Now, it’s granted them an extra 18 months. But it’s made the possibility that they’ll have to leave the US — after an average of 13 years in the country as of early 2017 — into a certainty.

Haiti’s been covered by Temporary Protected Status since shortly after the 2010 earthquake that killed as many as 316,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more. Seven years later, the country’s recovery has been slowed by a cholera epidemic and a 2016 hurricane that destroyed much of the country’s Southern peninsula. Haitian officials argue it still hasn’t recovered enough to absorb 50,000 people — and forego the billion-plus dollars in remittances that Haitians in the US send home.

DHS’s decision is ostensibly about Haiti: Judging, as a senior administration official said on Monday, that “the extraordinary temporary conditions that served as the initial basis for Haiti’s TPS designation have sufficiently improved, so that they no longer prevent Haitian nationals from returning safety.”

But it’s really about the US.

The Trump administration’s moves to strip TPS from immigrants — including ending it for Nicaraguans and Sudanese, and punting on a decision about TPS for 57,000 Hondurans — are a sharp break from previous administrations. They reflect the administration’s view that immigrants should only be in the United States if the US government has decided they would contribute to American society. But when it comes to TPS, it’s taking immigrants who have already been contributing to American society, in their way, and plucking them out.

No president wanted to end humanitarian immigration benefits. Then came Donald Trump.

Temporary Protected Status serves as a form of humanitarian relief, offered to nationals of countries struggling with the aftermath of war, natural disasters, or other humanitarian crises where conditions on the ground make it difficult for people to return safely. Ten countries — El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — are currently in the program, which is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security and is granted in six- to 18-month intervals that can be renewed as long as DHS deems a designation necessary.

To enter the program, nationals of a designated country must clear a number of conditions: They must maintain a relatively clean criminal record and pass a background check, they must pay a $495 processing fee when they first apply for the program and every time their status is renewed, and they must reside in the United States at the time of their country’s designation. This usually means that TPS beneficiaries are undocumented immigrants who were already in the US, those who overstayed a visa, or those who hold some other form of temporary immigration status.

TPS beneficiaries are granted authorization to work in the US (and in some cases the ability to travel internationally) and a reprieve from deportation. But outside of that, TPS doesn’t grant many other benefits; beneficiaries do not have legal permanent resident status, and while a small number of beneficiaries may be eligible for green cards through the sponsorship of a US citizen family member, the program is not intended to provide a path to citizenship.

In practice, that meant that once a country’s TPS was up for review, presidents had two choices: They could renew TPS for that country, kicking the can down the road; or they could terminate it and give thousands of people no way to stay legally in the US.

Unsurprisingly, most presidents chose the former. But equally unsurprisingly, the Trump administration is taking the opposite approach. With six opportunities to extend TPS over its nine months in office, it’s fully extended one of them — South Sudan — while terminating three countries’ protections on delays, and offering six-month punts twice (Honduras and the initial six-month extension for Haiti).

Indeed, there’s some evidence that the White House itself sees ending TPS as an important political goal for the administration. The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff reported earlier this month that White House chief of staff (and former Homeland Security Secretary) John Kelly called Acting Secretary Duke and pressured her to immediately end TPS for Honduras — saying that it would make life harder for his protégé Kirstjen Nielsen, nominated to succeed him at DHS, if the Honduras question were still unresolved.

The fundamental problem, from the Trump administration’s point of view, is that TPS is designed to be temporary, and a temporary program shouldn’t be leading people to settle in the US.

“The law is relatively explicit that if the conditions on the ground do not support a TPS designation, the secretary must terminate the TPS designation,” a senior administration official said Monday night. “The acting secretary is constrained by what the law says.”

Terminating TPS essentially wipes away the years Haitian immigrants have spent in American communities

Legally speaking, the senior administration official is correct. The statute creating TPS tells the secretary to look at “conditions in the foreign state” when making her decision. It doesn’t say anything about whether it would cause hardship to current TPS beneficiaries (or to US citizens) if TPS were revoked, or whether it would be in the national interest to keep TPS holders here — both of which are standards used elsewhere in immigration law.

That means that the ostensible policy argument has been about the extent of Haiti’s recovery. Haitian officials have argued that they can’t reabsorb 59,000 people back into the country just yet; Republican Sen. Marco Rubio agreed, and argued for TPS protections to be extended for 18 months, with an option to keep them after 2019, rather than terminating them at that point.

But the reason that the administration’s threats to TPS have become such a hot issue — generating an amount of attention and pushback from immigrants and Congress that’s gradually eclipsed outrage over the still-mutating travel ban — is that at this point, TPS holders aren’t just people from Haiti (or Honduras, or El Salvador). They’re people who have been living in the United States.

If TPS really had been temporary in practice, this might not be much of an issue. But countries take a long time to recover from wars or disaster, and in the meantime, people put down roots.

The average Haitian TPS holder affected by this decision has been in the US for 13 years, according to the Center for Migration Studies. 6,200 of them hold mortgages. 27,000 of them have US-born, US citizen children. (Hondurans and Salvadorans with TPS are if anything even more firmly rooted.)

They might not be the immigrants that the Trump administration has in mind when it imagines overhauling the US immigration system to be “merit-based.” The median household income for Haitian TPS holders, according to the Center for Migration Studies, is $45,000, and their unemployment rate is 10 percent, over double the national average (which was 4.4 percent in August 2017, when the CMS report was issued).

But their contributions to US communities, and the fact that they have become part of US communities, are real. “Our nation — especially my home state of Florida — has not only offered a helping hand to Haitians seeking refuge from these grave challenges, but also benefited significantly from their presence in and contributions to our country,” wrote Rubio in his Miami Herald op-ed.

Ironically, so has the government of Haiti. As of 2015, remittances sent home from the US to Haiti accounted for 25 percent of the country’s total GDP, making it the most remittance-dependent country in the Western Hemisphere.

It’s clear that to the extent that the country has recovered, money sent back from Haitians living in the US under TPS was part of the reason — and that once TPS ends, should those Haitians come home, the reduced remittances flow could slow the recovery.

And, of course, it’s not at all clear that all 59,000 Haitian TPS holders will simply return to Haiti on or before July 22, 2019. After the administration’s threats in May, some Haitians attempted to seek asylum at the Canadian border — an option that might be more popular, and more legally viable, once their TPS actually ends. And others are likely simply to remain in the US as unauthorized immigrants, knowing that ICE won’t immediately be able to arrest and deport them.

The problem is that the Trump administration’s determination to make US immigration policy serve “America First,” combined with their stricter interpretation of the laws governing TPS, have made it impossible to consider a situation in which keeping people who’ve lived in the US for a long time might be the most compassionate thing for their home country — and for Americans.