They want the U.S. government to grant temporary protected status to Haitians in the country illegally. The status allows immigrants from countries experiencing armed conflict or environmental disasters to stay and work in the U.S. for a limited time.
Haitian-Americans have repeatedly pleaded for a halt to deportations to Haiti in times of strife — without success. And they want to know why no one seems to be listening, even as four successive storms have killed at least 331 people and displaced tens of thousands in Haiti so far this season.
The community leaders asked that this week beneath a banner that read “1804-2004: The Struggle of a Nation,” as they did in that bicentennial year when Tropical Storm Jeanne killed some 3,000 people in Haiti. They gathered for the same purpose this spring, just as they have after political upheaval, deadly tropical weather, riots sparked by high food prices and other crises since 2000.
“It almost seems as if, to the (Bush) administration, the community doesn’t exist,” said Haitian-born state Rep. Ronald Brise, whose Miami-area district represents the most Haitians in the Florida House.
Advocates say about 20,000 illegal Haitian immigrants would benefit from the status and help maintain a significant flow of money and food to the hemisphere’s poorest country where half of its 8.5 million people live on less than $1 a day. Haitians abroad sent about $1.83 billion home last year, amounting to about 35 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.
“We need Haitians here to be sending remittances to Haiti to help them survive,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
The U.S. has given nearly $400 million in assistance to Haiti since 2004, including $64 million for disaster relief after Jeanne and Hurricane Dennis in 2005, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Ana Santiago said.
“The U.S. government is committed to continuing to work closely with the government of Haiti, the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the international community to address the humanitarian and security concerns facing Haiti,” Santiago said.
The protected status has been granted and extended by the Department of Homeland Security to people from a handful of African and Central American countries because of natural disasters.
Immigrants from Nicaragua and Honduras retain eligibility a decade after Hurricane Mitch devastated those countries in 1998. U.S. officials have determined those countries remain unable to adequately handle the return of their nationals.
Haiti would seem to qualify as incapable of dealing with new deportees. Post-storm relief efforts have been hindered by the country’s lack of well-kept roads and other infrastructure. Even before hurricane season began in June, civil unrest over spiking food prices and chronic political and economic instability prompted the U.S. State Department to warn against travel to Haiti.
“It’s not safe to deport them there, either,” said Steven Forester, senior policy analyst at Haitian Women of Miami.
The repeated community outcry for temporary protected status through the years does not mean the request is recycled, he said.
“There have been many catastrophes,” Forester said. “The developments this year have been quite dramatic in re-enforcing why Haitians qualify for TPS.”
Haiti President Rene Preval wrote to President Bush in February, asking for the status, saying it would take years for the country to recover from last year’s Tropical Storm Noel and previous storms. Protected status “would enable my government to concentrate its limited resources upon economic and political reconstruction instead of having to provide social services to (deportees),” he wrote.
In Washington on Friday, members of the Congressional Black Caucus renewed their call for increased aid to Haiti and for the temporary protected status.
“Too often our requests to the White House and federal government agencies have fallen on deaf ears or resulted in too slow of a response. Time is not on our side — Haiti needs help now,” said U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., whose district represents a significant portion of the estimated 275,170 Haitians living in the South Florida metro area.
Temporary protected status has to be considered in a geopolitical context, said Daniel Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.
El Salvador still has it after earthquakes in 2001, “and one thing that’s helped them to get it is there are Salvadoran troops in Iraq,” Erikson said.
“What other countries have done is either give the U.S. something it wants or play a shrewd lobbying game, and Haiti has done neither,” he said.
Jean-Robert Lafortune, chairman of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition in Miami, said granting Haitians protective status will give the U.S. something it wants — a stable Caribbean. It would secure consistent support for families in Haiti and keep refugees out of other Caribbean countries and Florida, he said.