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Local Haitians worry about federal decision to end protected status in 18 months

Siblings Urline and Nevie have been worrying every day since Nov. 20 about their future, how they will support their families here and in Haiti and what they would do if the U.S. government forces them to return to their native country, still reeling from the devastating 2010 earthquake and a host of other problems.

The two Norwich residents, who asked that only their first names be used for this story because of their status, are among an estimated 1,200 Haitians in Connecticut and nearly 60,000 living and working throughout the United States under the federal designation of Temporary Protected Status. TPS was granted to qualifying Haitians already living in the United States at the time of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, giving them extended stays and the ability to obtain work permits in the United States.

It later was expanded to many Haitians who came here legally since the earthquake to join family here, find jobs and send money home to desperate relatives.

The designation was extended every time an expiration date approached throughout the Obama Administration years. Last May, the Department of Homeland Security under President Donald Trump extended TPS for Haitians, set to expire in July, for six months to January 2018.

But on Nov. 20, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke announced that TPS for Haitians will be extended for a final 18 months and then will be terminated July 22, 2019. The extension was made to allow those on TPS to make arrangements to move back to Haiti, the department said in a news release at the time.

“Based on all available information, including recommendations received as part of an inter-agency consultation process,” the Department of Homeland Security release stated, “Acting Secretary Duke determined that those extraordinary but temporary conditions caused by the 2010 earthquake no longer exist. Thus, under the applicable statute, the current TPS designation must be terminated.”

Nevie, 61, and Urline, 53, disagree with that assessment. They discussed their situation Friday at the St. Mary's Church rectory, with Sister Yannick, who speaks Haitian Creole, serving as translator.

"Haiti is worse than ever," Urline said. Nevie has visited Port-au-Prince three times since the earthquake, in 2011, 2012 and 2016. "Same," he said of conditions there.

The two grew up in Port-au-Prince in a family with 11 children, Urline being the youngest. Nevie moved to the United States in 1996, first to Miami and then to Norwich to join family and find work. He has worked in the cleaning department at Foxwoods Resort Casino for the past seven years, and worked at Mohegan Sun prior to that.

Nevie, who already had a visa and a work permit, was granted Temporary Protected Status in 2010 after the earthquake.

Urline and the rest of their siblings were living in Port-au-Prince during the earthquake. One cousin lost her two children in the earthquake, and everybody was forced to sleep outdoors for weeks, Urline said. Nevie contacted his family and asked them to move to Norwich with him. But Urline was the only one with a visa, so she came. When TPS was extended to Haitians who arrived after the earthquake, she applied and was approved in 2011.

At the same time, she applied for permanent residency, an application that remains pending. She worries that the July 22, 2019, deadline will arrive before she learns about her application.

Nevie recently started his application for permanent residency. His wife is a U.S. citizen and the couple has four children — two grown and two younger: a son age 12 and a daughter, 9, in Norwich schools.

"I've been here for so long," he said. "I would have to start all over again. It's hard to adapt. Things are so different."

Urline has two adult children, ages 22 and 23, who live with her in Norwich. She works in the lumber section of the Lowe's distribution center in Plainfield.

Urline wonders why the federal government doesn't give TPS recipients permanent residency status. Haitians on TPS are legally here, working, paying taxes and Urline "doesn't do anything wrong," she said.

As with past extensions of TPS, the Nov. 20 ruling also required all Haitians in the United States on TPS to reapply for federal Employment Authorization Documents to continue to work legally in the United States until the end of the TPS period.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office within the Department of Homeland Security does not keep statistics by state on the number of people on Temporary Protected Status, said Paula Grenier, public affairs officer at the Boston office. Nationwide, 58,706 Haitians had secured TPS by the end of 2016, she said. In all, 439,625 people from 13 different countries had TPS at the end of 2016, with by far the most coming from El Salvador, 263,282.

In Connecticut, the self-described nonpartisan progressive agency Center for American Progress estimated 1,200 Haitians in the state are TPS holders, and 1,000 of them are employed, contributing $75.5 million to the state’s economy.

'Hurtful and harmful decision'

Members of the Connecticut congressional delegation strongly opposed the decision to terminate TPS for Haitians even with a 19-month delay in the effective date. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called it a “cruel political move” that is “a betrayal of our American values” to send thousands of people back to a country still struggling to recover. Haitians on TPS, he said, also have put down strong roots in the United States.

“These are people who have lived here legally for years — starting families and businesses and contributing to their communities,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “I have urged the administration to reverse course on this hurtful and harmful decision.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said not only has Haiti not recovered from the 2010 earthquake, but still suffers from new and persistent problems, including a cholera epidemic that has killed 9,000 people, Hurricane Matthew that hit the southern food-producing areas and drought and food shortages.

“There’s simply no defensible benefit to ending the TPS program,” U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said recently. “The Trump administration’s decision will needlessly tear apart families, especially the Haitian families who’ve been living and working here for nearly a decade, and cost taxpayers billions of dollars in lost revenue. The Trump administration should immediately reconsider their decision.”

Nevie said if he is forced to leave in summer of 2019, his wife and children, all U.S. citizens, would remain here, and the family would suffer.

And like many Haitians in the United States, both Nevie and Urline regularly send money home to support their siblings and their families. One brother has 14 children, Urline said. Jobs are scarce in Haiti, and everything from school to medical care is expensive.

One sister-in-law died recently. The funeral was Saturday, and Nevie and Urline sent money to Haiti to pay for the service. Urline said the woman was sick but didn't go to the doctor until she had a bad fever. She died three days later.

Local ties to Haiti

Southeastern Connecticut has had ties to Haiti for decades, attracting Haitian immigrants to work in local agricultural operations, such as the former Franklin mushroom farm, and the region’s two casinos. Norwich alone has 198 Haitian students in the public school system and two Norwich churches offer Haitian Creole services, including a Haitian Mass at St. Mary’s attended regularly by 50 to 70 parishioners, according to the pastor, Father Robert Washabaugh.

Immediately following the 2010 earthquake, Norwich rallied around its Haitian communities, with representatives from dozens of agencies meeting to figure out how to help families contact loved ones in Haiti, how to support children and comfort families who lost relatives and friends.

And when the federal government offered TPS to Haitian residents in the U.S., Norwich Human Services raised $7,500 to help pay for and process applications for local Haitians seeking the status.

Norwich Human Services Director Lee Ann Gomes said last week that she was surprised that no Haitians on TPS have contacted her office after the Nov. 20 announcement. She contacted many of the people who attended the Haitian community meetings to gauge concern in the community, but received few responses.

The Rev. Estime Joziel, pastor of the First Haitian Baptist Church on Central Avenue just a few blocks from St. Mary’s, said he knows of two church members who have TPS, but he said they declined to discuss their situation with The Day — or even with their pastor.

“Some people just want to keep their personal life secret,” Joziel said. “They do not want to share their lives with others, and some people don’t want others to know that they have a TPS. Some have been in the country for a very long time.” 

Joziel said forcing local Haitians on TPS to return to Haiti not only would tear apart families but would hurt the local economy. Many Haitians work at the casinos or at a number of other jobs that others don’t want.

“I wish the church could help,” Joziel said of the pending termination of TPS, “but I don’t think there’s anything the church can do. Years ago, the church could do that, but immigration law is what it is.”

A nation of poverty

In her Nov. 20 announcement, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Duke said conditions in Haiti had improved substantially since the 2010 earthquake, to the point where Haitians could go home. She cited a statistic that the number of displaced people in Haiti had dropped by 97 percent since the earthquake.

But national and local observers dispute that assessment. An Associated Press story on Nov. 20 reported that Haiti remains one of the poorest nations in the world, with a quarter of its residents, 2.5 million people, living in what that country defines as extreme poverty, living on the equivalent of $1.23 per day.

Locally, the Norwich-based Haitian Health Foundation raises money and operates a health clinic in Jeremie, Haiti, a city on the southwest peninsula. And the Diocese of Norwich operates Outreach to Haiti, with a mission house in Port-au-Prince. Both organizations regularly send groups of volunteers to work in Haiti to support their missions.

Dan O’Sullivan, executive director of Outreach to Haiti, returned last Monday from a trip to Port-au-Prince to sign contracts to rebuild the diocese’s facilities destroyed in the earthquake. It took this long, he said, to finalize plans to rebuild. Earthquake damage is still “very evident” in Port-au-Prince, he said, and there’s widespread unemployment and under-employment.

“They’ve certainly made a lot of progress from the earthquake, but what most people don’t factor in is Haiti was in desperate states even before the earthquake,” O’Sullivan said. “... If 60,000 more people are trying to enter the job market there, they just aren’t going to have much luck. And it’s double sided, because a lot of people are sending money to them. A big part of their economy is ex-patriots sending money home.”


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