Rose Tilus was 17 when her family sent her from Haiti to live with a relative in Florida. Tilus’ parents feared for her safety because of political and civil unrest in Haiti at the time. She left behind four siblings.
That was 20 years ago.
Today, Tilus still lives in fear. But this time it revolves around her immigration status in the United States.
“My day-to-day thinking is, ‘What if I'm deported? What if I'm sent back?’ So that's always in the back of my head. What would I do?” Tilus said.
Tilus is among more than 300,000 foreign nationals living in the U.S. who have Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The designation allows Haitians and those of 11 other nations who meet certain requirements to be shielded from deportation and obtain a work permit. It does not, however, give them a path to permanent residency and U.S. citizenship.
By definition, TPS was designed as a temporary humanitarian protection. As then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly noted in 2017, "TPS as enacted in law is inherently temporary in nature, and beneficiaries should plan accordingly that this status may finally end.”
But for many, that status has been extended and renewed repeatedly, during which time lives have been built in the United States. In Tilus’ case, she has become a nurse, serving on the front lines against the coronavirus pandemic, and earned a master’s degree.
After more than a decade of living renewal-to-renewal under different U.S. administrations, Tilus told VOA she feels like she is stuck in a hole “unable to come up.”
For many TPS holders, hopes of a path to U.S. citizenship were dashed Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that certain immigrants with TPS cannot get green cards, or permanent residency, in the United States.
The court’s unanimous decision affects those who entered the United States unlawfully and without inspection. The justices unanimously found that having TPS does not constitute a legal admission to the United States. One of the requirements to adjust their status while living in the U.S. and become a green card holder is to have entered the country legally.
Though Tilus is not affected by the case, as she entered the country with a tourist visa, the decision is a blow to TPS holders who entered the U.S. unlawfully.
The next move could be up to Congress, according to Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University's law school.
“The Court noted that Congress could fix the problem through legislation,” Yale-Loehr told VOA. “Indeed, such a bill is pending in Congress. The decision highlights the need for Congress to enact immigration legislation to fix our broken immigration system.”
Yale-Loehr noted that some TPS holders have been living in the country for more than 20 years.
When TPS began
TPS was first established by the U.S. Congress as part of the Immigration Act of 1990.
The statute first gave the U.S. attorney general and, later, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the authority to designate a country for TPS under one or more conditions. They include an ongoing armed conflict or any other “extraordinary and temporary conditions” where foreign nationals cannot safely return to their home country. The DHS was created in 2002.
Nationals from 12 countries are protected by TPS: Haiti, El Salvador, Syria, Nepal, Honduras, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Nicaragua, Myanmar, South Sudan and Venezuela.
Haiti, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and Venezuela were designated for TPS after President Joe Biden took office. The U.S. government estimates that 323,000 Venezuelans, 1,600 Burmese and 100,000 to 150,000 Haitian nationals could be eligible.
Haiti’s TPS designation will last 18 months. For Tilus, fear and anxiety are merely postponed, not ended.
“This [protective status] is given and then 18 months later it’s like being in this panicking experience. … I cry a lot. It causes anxiety and depression ... It's a fear of not knowing what's going to happen,” Tilus said.
Haiti’s first TPS designation came in 2010 after an earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation, leaving thousands dead and the country’s rickety infrastructure destroyed. A major humanitarian crisis ensued. The former Obama administration granted 18 months of TPS status for those who had been in the U.S. since January 12, 2010.
Since then, Tilus said, the situation in Haiti has worsened.
“When I speak to a family member, they tell me they are afraid to send their children to school because of kidnapping and being held for ransom [because] that’s how they [criminals] make their living … It's a tragedy,” Tilus said.
On May 22, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced renewed TPS relief for Haiti based on those “extraordinary” conditions.
“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.
The news came after months of pressure from immigration advocates and some members of Congress. It reversed an effort by the former Trump administration that had left many Haitians in limbo.
In 2017, the Trump administration announced it planned to end TPS for Haitians. In a statement at the time, the former administration maintained that “Haiti is able to safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens.”
Immigrant advocates contested that assertion and legal challenges ensued. Federal court injunctions blocked the move, allowing TPS holders from Haiti to keep their status.
Currently, DHS officials say those covered under the 2010 designation will be able to submit a new application for TPS, but registration has yet to open.
In May, Tilus shared her story in front of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Safety. She told members of Congress she is among an estimated 346,000 undocumented health care workers in the U.S. and one of 130,000 TPS holders who has provided essential services during the pandemic.
She told senators of the pride she felt pursuing higher education in the United States.
“It was beautiful. … Amazing that I could finally do this after almost a decade later. I could go back to school. I felt at home being in the classroom,” she said.
Tilus’ ability to remain in the United States for at least another 18 months came about after a concerted bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill to redesignate TPS for Haiti.
U.S. Senators Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Bob Menendez, a Democrat, in a March letter urged the administration to act fast, saying, “Haiti’s significant political challenges have introduced additional instability in the country.”
Guerline Jozef, of the California-based Haitian Bridge Alliance, said getting Haiti’s new TPS designation was a “long and painful” fight. Though it is a “big” win, she said the “major fight” is in Congress.
Jozef and other immigrant advocates continue to push for comprehensive immigration reform that would provide a pathway to permanent legal residency with the possibility of citizenship for certain types of immigrants, including those with TPS and those brought to the U.S. as minors. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a major reform bill earlier this year, but prospects for Senate approval appear dim.
Tilus told VOA she can no longer even conceive of living in Haiti again, even though being separated from her parents still living in the Caribbean nation takes an emotional toll.
“Last time I saw [my father], he couldn't see me anymore because he had gone completely blind … I’m a health care worker, and I couldn’t help him,” she said.