Haitians in the U.S. illegally have for years pleaded for the same treatment the federal government gave Central Americans in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch devastated their region: temporary legal status that would allow them to stay, work and send money home to their loved ones in need.
But they have been denied, despite four tropical storms in 2008, massive floods almost every other year since 2000 and the long-running political strife that has prompted thousands to seek asylum in the U.S.
Many Haitian immigrants in the U.S. are hoping last week’s catastrophic earthquake will at last push Washington to honor their request. Several lawmakers support the request, including South Florida’s three Republican Cuban-Americans in Congress, the Democrat who represents Miami’s Little Haiti, and representatives and senators from Florida, New York and Los Angeles.
Last Thursday, Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined those calling for the temporary protection.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano temporarily halted deportations of Haitians last week but advocates want a longer-term solution.
About 30,000 Haitians have orders to leave the U.S., according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. Many others are appealing their cases. Thousands of others live underground.
Among those hoping for the relief is Yvrose, a soft-spoken mother of two who declined to give her last name for fear of hurting her case.
Yvrose fled Haiti in 2003 after men searching for her husband — a member of a political opposition party — beat her so badly she ended up unconscious in the hospital.
She says family members spirited her by boat to the U.S., where she applied for political asylum. The request was denied and a temporary work permit was canceled last year, but an appellate board has ordered her case reheard. Like thousands of other Haitians, she remains in limbo — she can stay for now due to Napolitano’s order, but she can’t work or get a driver’s license.
Yvrose, 31, said the current halt to deportations means little if she can’t get a job to help her family rebuild their home in Port-au-Prince. Her father, who supported the family as best he could in Haiti with sporadic work as a tailor, is unlikely to find jobs any time soon — if he is still alive, she said.
“I need so much to work for my family in Haiti and to put food on the table for my kids here,” she said through an interpreter last Thursday, her voice heavy with exhaustion.
Federal law permits Homeland Security to grant immigrants temporary protected status or TPS in the event of a natural disaster or civil war. Since the earthquake struck, the department has said only that TPS is an option.
Those who favor a stricter U.S. immigration policy have in the past vehemently opposed giving temporary protected status because they argued it is a backdoor to granting amnesty. TPS given to Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Hondurans following Mitch was repeatedly extended for more than a decade, presumably long after those countries were able to rebuild. About 350,000 Central Americans have the designation as do about 950 Somalis and Sudanese in the U.S. since 2001 and 2004.
“TPS was invented for this kind of situation, but it has been turned into something much more permanent,” said Mark Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies. “And while we probably should grant TPS to Haitians who were here before the earthquake, we really need to make sure it’s temporary.”
Krikorian said he hopes if it’s granted to the Haitians, the U.S. government will use the opportunity to revamp the policy.
“Congress and or the administration should be forced after a few months to either fish or cut bait — to either resume deportation or grant green cards,” he said. “Either they need to home go home and start their lives over or do it here. We’re keeping them [in] limbo.”
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, is among South Florida congressional members who have long pressed for TPS for Haitians. He and others called on President Barack Obama to grant the status immediately following the quake.
Diaz-Balart was instrumental in pushing for TPS following Mitch. Yet he and others like South Florida Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek have been repeatedly rebuffed when it comes to the Haitians.
“This is an unfathomable tragedy,” Diaz-Balart said. “It begs the question: ‘How much does Haiti have to suffer before Haitians in the U.S. are granted TPS?’”
Immigration attorney Ira Kurzban, who has represented the Haitian government, is blunt in his critique. Racism against blacks “is the only logical explanation” for why Haitians have yet to receive the designation, he said.
Randy McGrorty, head of Catholic Charities Legal Services in Miami, agreed racism is a factor but not the only one.
“It’s about timing,” he said. In the decade since TPS was granted for Mitch, the debate over immigration has heated up, making any perceived effort to offer amnesty for those in the country illegally a riskier political move, he said.
Meek remains optimistic the White House will officially grant Haitians TPS in coming weeks or days.
Meek said Friday that the White House may be taking time to grant TPS to make sure that people on the island understand it would only affect Haitians in the U.S. before the earthquake. That is to ensure that people still in Haiti don’t leave the nation en masse thinking they will be granted protective status when they arrive in the U.S.
But for Yvrose, who has been out of work since her asylum case was rejected last year, time is ticking.
“I wasn’t even able to send my family anything for Christmas,” she said, wiping tears from her face. “And now? What can I do?”