Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Providing a Non-Discriminatory Shelter From the Storm

By Brian Concannon Jr.
Boston Haitian Reporter

On September 26, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced good news for residents of hurricane-ravaged areas who were in the U.S.: the extension of Temporary Protected Status, or “TPS.” TPS is a special immigration status that allows visitors without green cards who could otherwise be deported to remain and work in the United States. TPS is granted to nationals of countries that suffer from natural disasters or civil strife.  Jonathan “Jock” Scharfen the Acting Director of USCIS, proudly announced that the recent extension of TPS “continues the United States’ long tradition of providing relief to our visitors who, for reasons beyond their control, can’t return to their homes.”

Unfortunately, for those who care about Haiti, Mr. Scharfen was not talking about Hurricanes Gustav, Hannah or Ike, or Tropical Storm Fay, which slammed into Haiti one after the other during three weeks in August and September. He was not talking at all about Haiti, where over 500 people have been killed this year from storms, and over 100,000 left homeless in a country already reeling from an acute hunger crisis.

Instead, Mr. Scharfen was extending relief to citizens of Honduras and Nicaragua, because of the devastation of Hurricane Mitch, nine years ago in 1999. He also extended TPS for El Salvador, because of the devastation from earthquakes there in 2001. Hurricane Mitch was indeed devastating- it killed 7,000 people in Honduras, half that many in Nicaragua, as were the El Salvador earthquakes. But it is hard to find a more compelling case for providing relief to our visitors who, for reasons beyond their control, can’t return to their homes than Haitians in 2008.

Lately, many people have been making that case. Advocates for Haiti in Congress have called on the Bush Administration to extend TPS immediately- Rep. William Delahunt of Massachusetts declared that ”we have a moral obligation to move expeditiously and quickly” to grant TPS. The Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel have joined the chorus with editorials insisting on TPS (the Boston Globe chimed in in March). These voices have been joined by the Archbishop of Miami, the Organization of American States, and many refugee rights organizations.

This pressure, and the magnitude of Haiti’s suffering, has moved the U.S. government to take an important step towards TPS. On September 20, the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit announced that it would temporarily suspend deportations to Haiti. This step was good news to Haitians facing deportation- one woman had said good-bye to her family, and had sent her bag downstairs at the detention center for her deportation flight the next morning, when she heard of the suspension.

But temporary suspension is not a substitute for TPS. ICE announced that it is reviewing conditions in Haiti “on a day-by-day basis,” which means that deportations could resume any time. Although TPS is temporary too, it is a longer temporary- the TPS for Central American countries will now last to July 2010. This time allows visitors and their families to plan ahead, knowing how long they will be able to stay. TPS beneficiaries also receive employment authorization, so they can work legally, to better support themselves and to send more money back home to help their families rebuild.

The reluctance to afford TPS to Haitians raises a problem for the United States, as well as for Haitians. Haitians’ factual claim to TPS is at least as compelling as that of their Central American neighbors, so our failure to provide equal treatment gives the impression that another factor- skin color- is involved.

In fact, a report prepared by Columbia Law School last February made exactly that charge. The report, submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, charged that the United States violated its obligations under international law “to ensure that its immigration policies do not have the effect of discriminating against persons on the basis of race.” The report cited TPS, but also the U.S. government policies on refugee screening and the detention of illegal entrants, to demonstrate that Haitians faced hurdles in the immigration system that similarly-situated citizens of other countries did not.

The catastrophes that struck Haiti provide the Bush Administration the opportunity to refute these accusations of racism in our immigration policy, by granting Haitians the same relief that their distressed neighbors have enjoyed for almost a decade. If the current administration does not seize the opportunity, it will be up to the new administration, and the new Congress, to show Haitians, and the world, that we can apply our immigration laws fairly.

Brian Concannon Jr., Esq. is the Director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti,

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