In the two years since his deportation from the neighboring Dominican Republic, Odnell Ceant has wallowed in despair. He's unable to find work. He’s facing eviction and his children don’t always have food to eat.
“I never thought Haiti was difficult like this,” said Ceant, 35, his eyes welling with tears as he reflected on his desperate plight. “Once you’re working, you aren’t hungry. Once you have a job, you have hope. As long as you don’t have work, you can never have a plan for your life.”
Four years after the Dominican Republic began cracking down on undocumented Haitian workers following a decision by one of its courts to retroactively strip Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, tens of thousands of Haitians like Ceant have ended up in Haiti after being expelled or forced to flee. Their arrival, mostly ignored by Haitian authorities, has burdened humanitarian organizations that have struggled to help amid deep budget cuts and indifference.
Now the prospect that thousands of Haitians temporarily living in the United States could soon find themselves in a similar situation should the Trump administration end their special immigration status, worries humanitarians and U.S.-based activists, who have watched with trepidation at the Haitian government’s inability to absorb the influx from the neighboring Dominican Republic.
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“We’re not ready and we don’t have any support to help those people,” said Olivier Tenes, in charge of northeast Haiti for the International Organization for Migration, which monitors the 245 miles border and has registered 192,685 returnees and refugees since June 2015. “That can be really difficult and that can lead to a big issue.”
In May, the U.S. Department of Homeland and Security announced that it would extend Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for only six months after it expired on July 22. John Kelly — then secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, now White House chief of staff — said he would review the designation ahead of the new Jan. 22 expiration date to see if conditions in Haiti warranted an additional extension.
But last week, as the 180-day countdown began for what some fear could be the final TPS extension and Kelly’s surprise promotion deepened uncertainty, Haitians were reminded by DHS to start preparing to return home “in the event Haiti’s designation is not extended again.”
“We’re in a crisis here,” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, who has used Haiti’s treatment of deportees from the Dominican Republic in her fight for TPS renewal. “Eighty-percent of TPS holders are employed and you want to send them back to a place where you have all of these people who aren’t working and the Haitian government hasn’t been able to house [returnees from the Dominican Republican], employ them and provide them with even the most basic necessities to live with dignity? This is the Haiti you want to send 58,000 families to?”
That Haiti is not just a country of extreme poverty, but unrelenting unemployment. A country where 59 percent of the 10.5 million population live on less than $2.42 a day; its people, most of them young, are fleeing en masse to Brazil, Chile and Canada in search of refuge; and its largest private sector employer, the apparel industry, is losing jobs amid a volatile U.S. retail climate.
Ceant ended up in this Haiti on a rain-soaked day in May 2015 after Dominican immigration arrested him as he prepared to head out to his $10.50 a day construction job. After two days in detention, he, his wife and five kids were dumped at the Belladère-Elias Piña border in Central Haiti. It was his first time back on Haitian soil since his mother crossed with him when he was 12 to go pack onions on a Dominican farm.
“I grew up in Saint Domingue,” said Ceant, referring to the Dominican Republic’s French colonial name. “I don’t know Haiti.”
At the border, he hired a motorcycle with the only cash he had, $12.60, and ended up at the local offices of the Support Group for Refugees and Returnees (GARR), a Haitian nongovernmental organization. When a counselor asked where he was headed, Ceant reached for the only memory of Haiti he recalled:
“I said, ‘Saint Raphael,’ because it was the only name I knew. That’s where my mother said she was from,” he said. “They gave me [$8]. But when I looked, I didn’t know where to turn.”
So he stayed in Belladère, where he found a place to rent, and spent “three months crying as my children slept on a sheet on a floor because they were now living a miserable existence.”
Rigard Orbé, who is in charge of advocacy for GARR, said there are many Ceants among the dozens of returnees who come seeking help on a daily basis after being kicked out of the Dominican Republic. They arrive demoralized, and psychologically destabilized after having lost their livelihoods, and sometimes the only life they have known.
“The majority of people who left [for the Dominican Republic], did so in search of work,” he said. “They couldn’t find it in their own country, so they took the chance to go to Saint Domingue in search of life. But when immigration arrests them and send them back, they now have a new worry —unemployment.”
Orbé said GARR would like to do more than provide returnees and refugees with a toothbrush, a hot meal, a temporary bed and transportation money. It would also like to help individuals better integrate in Haiti by helping them find housing and income-generating opportunities. But the funds are limited.
The idea that 60,000 Haitian emigres, or any percentage of that, could find themselves back in the very place they escaped from, would only aggravate an already grave situation, he said.
“Haiti’s biggest problem today is unemployment,” Orbé said. “There are too many young men and women who have finished school but they are in the streets; they have all of this potential but can’t find a place to work. That’s a problem.”
Tenes, the IOM official, fears it’s a problem that will spur another travesty as people seek a way to have an income: trafficking.
“The risks are really high,” said Tenes, adding that when people cannot use the official border crossing points, “they are going to use the unofficial points where all of the traffickers are working.”
In the last several months, he said, there have been several trafficking-related deaths along the northeast Ouanaminthe-Djabon border, for example, as the Dominican military, spurred by rumors of a Haitian invasion, stepped up control of the porous border by adding additional checkpoints, barbed wire and cameras. A United Nations affiliated agency, IOM used to monitor 96 crossings but now only monitors about 50 due to budget cuts, he added.
“Every migrant has their reason for leaving, but in the end they know that they don’t have the best opportunity where they are in their own country and they want to look for the best opportunity abroad,” Tenes said.
There are many similarities, he said, between Haitians who fled to the U.S. and now facing an end of TPS, and those who went to the Dominican Republic.
“It’s people with different incomes, living in different countries, but in the end, the essence and the dynamics are all the same,” he said.
In recommending an end to TPS for Haitians, James McCament, the acting director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a memo that conditions in Haiti no longer support its designation. Seven years after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, “circumstances in the country have continued on an upward trajectory since,” he argued.
Others disagree. The Haitian economy, which had a 3 percent growth a year before the quake left 300,000 dead and 1.5 million displaced, is projected to have negative growth this year. And inflation, which averaged around 5 percent that same year, is now 15.8 percent, said economist Kenser Pharel.
“The Haitian economy is not in the best situation to absorb people coming from the DR and the U.S.,” Pharel said.
Last week, after months of violent protests over low factory wages, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse announced he would raise the minimum wage from $4.75 for eight hours of work to $5.55. The 80 cent hike is far less than the $12 workers were demanding, and while it seems to have dampened protests, for now, analysts say it’s not enough to raise Haitians out of extreme poverty, especially given the high inflation cutting into the poor’s purchasing power.
“We have the working poor in Haiti,” said Pharel. “Wages are barely enough to allow people to survive. They cannot eat the best foods, and they do not have enough money to pay rent or transportation. They are heavily dependent on remittances for making a living.”