A half dozen Democratic lawmakers met with Haiti’s ambassador in an intimate dinner on Tuesday night to craft a new strategy aimed at convincing the White House to extend a temporary program set to expire in January 2018 that allows thousands of Haitians to work and live in the U.S.
Over rum punch and pikliz, the Democrats said it’s time to tie what’s known as TPS for Haiti to recent activism over DACA, an executive order signed by Barack Obama that gave protections to undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as minors.
“We have to create the atmosphere where the man in the Oval Office says ‘I’m considering it,’” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said at the dinner.
Creating the atmosphere won’t come from signing letters or talking with administration officials about humanitarian concerns in Haiti. Instead, Democrats argue that repeatedly bringing up TPS during every DACA protest and getting business leaders to realize the disruption to labor markets if 58,000 Haitians are required to leave will increase public pressure on Trump to grant the TPS extension.
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“If all the Haitian workers at Fort Lauderdale International Airport left tomorrow, they would have the messiest bathrooms of any airport, even messier than LaGuardia,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.
Hastings and Jackson Lee said that widespread outrage from Democrats—and business leaders—over President Donald Trump’s decision to end DACA last week created a massive amount of public pressure. Trump indicated over Twitter after the decision to end DACA was announced that he would “revisit” DACA if Congress is unable to draft and pass a legislative fix that would keep those young people from being deported.
The TPS program is administered by the Homeland Security Department and allows foreign nationals already in the United States from 10 countries to stay in the United States for a designated period of time. TPS was granted to Haiti in 2011 after a massive 2010 earthquake.
When Haiti’s TPS was up for renewal in May, Democrats asked then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to show “compassion.”
Kelly ultimately decided to extend Haiti’s status, but only for six months instead of the usual 18. He also said Haitians “need to start thinking about returning.”
“It’s all or nothing at this point given the time frame, the consequences, if nothing happens between now and November,” ambassador Paul Altidor said. “We’re trying to ensure that as many people from Capitol Hill, from either side of the aisle, are involved in this, and we’ve seen that from members of the Florida delegation.”
One Florida Republican, Rep. Brian Mast, was scheduled to attend Tuesday’s dinner but was unable, due to Hurricane Irma. His office confirmed to Miami Herald that he is in favor of extending Haiti’s TPS status by 18 months.
Mast joins Miami Republicans Marco Rubio, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, who all signed a letter in March urging Kelly to extend Haiti’s TPS status.
Tuesday’s dinner was organized by Altidor and Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., a longtime proponent of extending Haiti’s TPS status.
“We’re going to go to whomever we need to make the case,” Clarke said, adding that bringing TPS into the larger DACA debate will help combat the spread of misinformation, such as false reports that Canada was offering free residency to Haitians in the United States.
In June, Kelly told Miami Herald that Congress must find a legislative solution for Haitians in the United States instead of continuously renewing TPS. Clarke has a bill that would expand TPS for Haitians, granting the temporary status to any Haitian in the United States since 2016, after Hurricane Matthew killed hundreds on the island. Haiti’s TPS status currently applies to those in the United States since 2011.
One indication of what may come for Haiti is whether the Trump administration chooses to extend TPS status for Sudan and South Sudan, which is set to expire on November 2. The decision on Sudan and South Sudan has already been made by the Homeland Security, but it has not been announced in the federal register.
Immigration advocates at Tuesday’s dinner cautioned that the decision to extend Sudan and South Sudan’s TPS status may not lead to an extension for Haiti, since the number of people on TPS from Sudan and South Sudan is small — slightly more than 1,000 people from those two countries compared with more than 58,000 from Haiti.
Altidor said that earlier this year when Haiti’s TPS was up for renewal, Kelly, a former Southcom commander with military experience in the Caribbean, made it clear to him the TPS decision was his.
“Maybe it’s the general in him,” Altidor said. “He always said, ‘I’m the man here making that decision.’”
But Kelly now serves as Trump’s chief of staff. He’s no longer leading Homeland Security.
No one at the meeting was sure who in the administration now has the final say over the TPS decision, prompting Altidor to ask, “Who is the ultimate decider?”
For the Democrats in the room, the confusion over White House leadership on Haiti bolstered their argument to tie TPS to DACA.
One protest splashed on cable news, they guessed, and a subsequent Trump tweet could change everything.