By ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON, Associated Press
MIAMI (AP) — Yolnick Jeune couldn’t sleep for days, anxious over the fate of a program that has staved off the deportations of both herself and tens of thousands of other Haitians in the U.S.
Then, President Donald Trump’s administration this week announced one last 18-month extension of the Temporary Protected Status that has allowed her to work and provide for her five children, including a 7-year-old, U.S.-born girl.
“I can breathe a little and get some rest. This buys me time to figure out what’s next,” Jeune said Tuesday in Miami’s Little Haiti community, standing next to her daughter Lagranda.
But at the same time, Jeune is upset that the government on Monday said she and nearly 60,000 Haitians must return home July 2019, ruling out any further extensions of the immigration benefits given to Haitians who came before and in the aftermath of the Caribbean country’s 2010 earthquake.
“I am very depressed to know that within 18 months, I have to go back,” she said.
Having been in Miami since 2009, Jeune has not returned to Haiti but hears from her sister and other relatives back in her native Port-de-Paix that conditions have not improved for those whose lives were upended by the earthquake.
In Little Haiti, the mood was of both relief and anger. Many of the dozens lined up to receive turkeys at the cultural center ahead of Thanksgiving were confused over whether the program was in fact extended or ended and were hesitant to speak about immigration.
“This decision has thrown these families in complete whirlwind,” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of the advocacy group Haitian Women of Miami, at a press conference Tuesday in Little Haiti.
“President Trump you did promise when you were campaigning that you would be Haiti’s best champion,” she said. “Is this your idea of being our champion? I beg to differ.”
The Department of Homeland Security said on Monday that conditions in Haiti have improved significantly since the earthquake. The announcement came 60 days before temporary status is set to expire, but many in Miami were expecting a shorter extension because in May the agency had only given six months instead of the usual 18.
The program protects from deportation some 435,000 people from nine countries ravaged by natural disasters or war, who came to the U.S. legally or otherwise. Days after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010, President Barack Obama granted the 18-month protection status for Haitians in the U.S. who would otherwise have had to go home. He renewed it every time it ran out.
Ira Kurzban, a lawyer who has represented former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the U.S., called Trump administration’s decision “ill-advised” and “morally bankrupt” and said he would challenge it in court. Although it remains one of the poorest nations in the world, Haiti has made advances spurred by international aid since the quake. The United Nations last month ended a peacekeeping mission in Haiti that, at its peak, included more than 10,000 troops.
But Kurzban said people from the Caribbean nation still deserved temporary protection, because of political instability and other natural disasters such as Hurricane Matthew that tore through southern Haiti in October 2016, killing more than 500.
Haiti wasn’t the first country to be canceled. Trump has ended temporary permit programs for people from Sudan and Nicaragua. He postponed a decision until next July on how to deal with 86,000 Hondurans. About 300 people rallied a mile away from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort on Tuesday before his scheduled arrival, demanding residence for those immigrants under the refugee programs.
Jeune and others are hoping these 18 months are enough for Congress to find a permanent solution for Haitians. Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, along with fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, last week unveiled new legislation to protect undocumented immigrants living under temporary protected status. But Kurzban said the likelihood of legislation passing before the 2019 deadline is small.
It’s also not easy for refugees to change their temporary immigration status to a permanent one on their own, with only certain circuit courts in the nation allowing it, and not the appeals court that rules over Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
Florida is the state with the most program holders of Haitian nationality. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, estimates 32,500 Haitians in Florida have temporary protected status, with 18,800 U.S.-born children living in those households. But there are also thousands in states like New York and Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts, where about 4,700 Haitians enjoy the protected status, Marianne Jeune said Trump’s decision was a welcome development. The longtime health care worker said she will have enough time to hopefully make arrangements to remain in the U.S. with her three children, one of them born in the U.S.
“This is good news. Very, very good news,” she said. She plans to marry the father of her 5-year-old daughter, who has U.S. citizenship, and seek permanent residency.
In Little Haiti, Ronyde Christina Ponthieux, a 10-year-old fifth-grade student, was devastated. She cried on her father’s shoulder on Tuesday when contemplating the possibility her parents may lose their immigration benefits.
“I have trouble sleeping at night sometimes, because I know that here’s a possibility me and my family may be deported,” Ronyde said. “A couple of months ago, my dad, he had high-blood pressure. People are stressing because knowing that there may be a possibility of them being deported is a huge thing. I love my dad, I love my parents, and all of these people they are important to me.”
Associated Press writers Terry Spencer in West Palm Beach, and Philip Marcelo in Boston contributed to this report.