It was an earthquake that forced Marie Joseph and her family to flee Haiti for the United States in 2010. Now, under President Donald Trump’s administration, another life-changing convulsion looms on the horizon.
Joseph is one of some 58,000 Haitians who benefited from a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to live and work in the US after Haiti’s devastating temblor. Many recipients of that scheme now fear an anti-immigrant White House is about to kick them out.
“I know [Trump] campaigned for the presidency saying he didn’t like immigrant people, but he could still do something for us,” Joseph, 48, whose name has been changed, told Al Jazeera.
“We know Haiti is not secure enough for my family to go back. Too many people get killed there. There are no jobs. There’s no way to live.”
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This month, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly extended Haiti’s TPS status for six months until January 22 next year – shorter than the 18-month renewals typically granted under former president Barack Obama.
He spoke of “progress” on a Caribbean nation that was ravaged by the 7.0-magnitude quake of January 2010 that killed more than 200,000 people, and has since taken a beating from Hurricane Matthew in October, and a cholera outbreak that claimed some 9,300 lives.
United Nations peacekeepers are set to leave, the economy continues to “recover and grow”, and 98 percent of the makeshift camps that sprang up around the quake-struck capital, Port-au-Prince, are now closed, said Kelly.
He urged Haitian TPS recipients to “attain travel documents” for their “ultimate departure” from US soil. On Wednesday, he flew to Haiti for a 90-minute meeting with Haitian President Jovenel Moise on the mass repatriation and other issues.
Before Haiti’s TPS expiration date, Kelly will evaluate conditions and decide whether to extend the scheme, re-designate the country, or terminate the status entirely. “It’s not meant to be an open-ended law, but a temporary law,” he said in Port-au-Prince.
Haiti has made gains these past seven years. The rubble is gone. New hotels have opened around the capital’s renovated airport and in the classy suburb of Petionville. Donna Karan, a fashion designer, opened a training centre to help Haitian artisans sell their wares.
But improvements have occurred against a backdrop of political upheavals and tragedy, including Hurricane Matthew, which claimed up to 1,000 lives, wrecked farms across southern Haiti and left some 1.4 million people needing handouts.
While TPS recipients knew of their “temporary” status in the US, many were startled by Kelly’s decision and are anxious about going home. Many used social media to share tips on changing their immigration status.
When playing to a crowd in the Miami neighbourhood known as “Little Haiti”, the Haiti-born hip hop star Wyclef Jean urged Trump to think twice. In a song, he rapped: “You need to renew that TPS; too many Haitians are feeling that stress.”
In a letter, Oxfam America and Refugees International joined dozens of charities to warn Kelly that Haiti still languishes from the quake, disease, storms and drought and “is in no position to reintegrate more than 50,000 Haitians”.
US-based Haitians sent a $1.3bn back to friends and relatives in 2015 – a much-needed 15 percent chunk of the country’s economy. According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, some 47,000 Haitians are still displaced by the 2010 quake.
“It takes a long time to rebuild,” Marjean Perhot, a refugee manager with Catholic Charities of Boston, which helps Haitians on TPS, told Al Jazeera.
“Our country went through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina [in 2005] and I would be surprised if there are not places in New Orleans that are still rebuilding, and we are a first-world nation with plenty of money. We’re asking Haiti to rebuild in seven years.”
She praised the industriousness of Joseph and others being helped by the charity in Massachusetts, which is home to 4,300 Haitians on TPS and constitutes their third-largest community in the US, after Florida and New York.
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Though Joseph, a care home worker who is training to be a nurse, and her husband, a school bus driver, earn basic salaries, they are vital for the local economy, said Perhot. The parents aspire for an American dream of college-educated children.
“Right now, our main concern is that TPS be extended for the full 18-month period,” said Perhot. “Down the road, if conditions don’t improve in Haiti, we would like to look at different types of legislation that could be possible.”
For Jessica Vaughan, from the Center for Immigration Studies, which argues for lower levels of immigration, this is the problem – TPS is increasingly viewed as a “side-door immigration programme”.
“It is time to change the way we think about TPS, so that it’s not just a stepping stone to some kind of amnesty or a permanent grant of legal status here” for people from turbulent countries, Vaughan told Al Jazeera.
“The government has been very fair in giving people six months’ warning that possibly TPS could be ended for Haitians, giving them time to get their affairs in order, save money, make plans, get documents and prepare for their return home.”
TPS recipients have earned first-world wages and gained valuable skills that will stand them in good stead back in Haiti, added Vaughan – echoing commonly held opinions in a country that backed Trump’s anti-immigrant platform in last year’s election.
It offers little comfort to Anne Dastine Pierre, 52, another Haitian mother-of-three with TPS status in the Boston area. Unlike Joseph, she has not learned English and struggles even to get a single shift each week cleaning the city’s convention centre.
“The way the country is today if the [US] government sends back the Haitians a lot of them will die,” Pierre told Al Jazeera.
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl
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Source: Al Jazeera News