WASHINGTON - Immigration advocates expressed concern Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security might be treating Haitian nationals unfairly and perhaps even trying to set new criteria in deciding whether to extend a humanitarian program for those temporarily living in the United States.
“It is an abuse,” said Philip Berns, an immigration attorney in Stamford, Connecticut, responding to an Associated Press report on what it called the Trump administration's "unorthodox" inquiry into an entire community's criminal activity.
At least 50,000 Haitians were registered in the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program after a 2010 earthquake ravaged their country. Their status expires July 22 unless Homeland Security renews it. The department must decide by May 23, giving 60 days' notice of its plans.
Emails reflect interest in Haitians
The AP reported Tuesday that it had obtained internal emails from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services showing the agency sought information on criminal activity by Haitians temporarily in the United States. The memos also indicated the agency's interest in whether any had received public benefits, for which they're ineligible.
"The law doesn't specify [criminal data] should be a consideration for Temporary Protected Status and the government has never said it would use criminal rates in deciding if a country's citizens should be allowed to stay under this program," the AP reported.
The AP also noted uncertainty about whether "the agency is asking such questions about other recipients of the temporary protection, including immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador."
13 countries on TPS list
Those countries are among 13 currently designated by Homeland Security for TPS because of dangerous conditions, such as ongoing conflict or natural or environmental disasters.
"Who's to say [Haiti] isn't the first of the dominoes?" Berns wondered in a phone interview. He added that Salvadorans, Hondurans and others on the list "should at the very least be paying close attention. It should be of great interest in those groups to stop this from becoming new criterion. … It really behooves them to kill this weed before it grows."
In an email to VOA, DHS said, "Secretary [John] Kelly hasn't yet made a decision on TPS for Haiti. The secretary's decision will be based on a thorough assessment of the conditions in the country; separately, he has asked the staff for detailed information to increase his understanding of how the program operates. The two actions are separate and distinct."
Trump asked to keep his promise
Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Haitian Women of Miami, said Kelly was "disingenuous" for wasting "time and taxpayers dollars to look into the criminal background of Haitian TPS holders when they know for a fact that no one can get TPS unless they have a clean records."
In a statement she emailed to VOA, Bastien also noted that, while campaigning in South Florida last year, now-President Donald Trump "promised to be Haitians' best champion. It is time for him to prove that by renewing TPS."
Haiti has not recovered
The AP's report follows an April 10 memo in which the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' acting director, James McCament, recommended extending TPS for Haitians for six months only. In the memo, he said conditions in Haiti had improved sufficiently.
Paul Altidor, Haiti's ambassador to the United States, disagreed that the Caribbean country has recovered enough to absorb tens of thousands of returnees “overnight.”
His government has urged the Trump administration to renew TPS “for at least another year,” Altidor said in a visit to VOA's Washington offices last Wednesday.
Haiti “has not recovered entirely from the earthquake,” the ambassador said, noting that not all of the financial aid pledged by “many friends and countries around the world” materialized. He also pointed out that his country had endured additional setbacks, such as a cholera epidemic and a devastating hurricane last October.
Altidor said the administration of President Jovenel Moise, who took office in February, is just beginning to put together reconstruction and development plans.
The ambassador also noted that some Haitian nationals have given birth to children U.S. citizens giving mixed status to families that could be torn apart. Those living in the United States "for the most part ... have been quite productive members of society for the past few years," he said.
US support for extending TPS
Berns, the immigration lawyer, echoed Altidor's point about productivity.
Under TPS, Haitians have found jobs to support themselves and send remittances to Haiti. "It's a very efficient form of humanitarian aid to be able to send money home," he said. "… Over the long run, they rebuild homes and get the local economy moving again."
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers as well as more than 400 U.S. religious leaders have recommended extending TPS for Haiti. U.S. Haitians communities are concentrated in South Florida, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts' Boston area.
VOA Creole Service's Sergio Rodriguez contributed to this report.