A day after the Department of Homeland Security strongly urged Haitians who have been protected from deportations to prepare for their ultimate return to Haiti, Evita Fremont wondered what she would be going back to.
“If they tell you to get out, you have to get out,” she said. “Haiti is my country, but it doesn’t have jobs. So I am going back to do what?”
Earlier this week, Fremont and 58,000 other Haitian migrants were granted a temporary reprieve from deportation after Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly announced a six-month extension to their stay in the United States after their “Temporary Protected Status,” or TPS, benefit expires on July 22. In making the decision, Kelly and senior DHS officials argued that conditions in Haiti had “substantially improved since the earthquake in 2010.”
Among the signs of improvement they cited: the withdrawal of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti after 13 years; newly elected President Jovenel Moïse’s promise to rebuild the razed National Palace; and the closure of most of the tent cities. They added that Haiti’s economy was also growing.
Fremont and others, however, take issue with DHS’ assessment. Seven years after the devastating earthquake, they say, Haiti is still recovering from the collapse of its economy, and struggling to restore social and economic normalcy.
“They are doing politics. They haven’t gone to Haiti,” said Fremont, 48, a mother of four. “If you just look at the South where I am from, there is no way anyone can say it has improved.”
Fremont has been in the United States since 2008. When the Obama administration finally designated Haiti as a TPS country after years of advocacy — and the Jan. 12, 2010, quake — it meant she could finally be employed legally in the U.S. Today, she earns $8.50 an hour at a South Florida warehouse, where she cleans and sorts used clothing.
The money isn’t much, she said, but it allows her to occasionally send “a sack of rice or $20 to $30” to her children and other family members in Haiti.
“I can’t even think about going back,” said Fremont, who suffers from hypertension and diabetes. “All I know is that if I go back, I am not going to live long. I am a sick woman.”
An official with the International Monetary Fund, which keeps a close eye on Haiti, said the country depends heavily on remittances from Haitians living abroad like Fremont. Their dollars account for 20 percent of the income of people in Haiti annually.
“The economy has been running on fumes for the past couple of years,” said the official, noting that inflation, just 4 percent three years ago, is now at 14 percent and the public treasury is starved. “The standard of living just hasn’t gone anywhere. Haiti’s real growth is in the area of 1 percent. For a population growing rapidly, it’s a demographic, development disaster.”
On Tuesday, the Trump administration proposed cutting the $191 million in assistance it gave to Haiti in the 2016-2017 budget by $33.4 million next year. That’s on top of drastic reductions in the U.S. contribution to the United Nation’s peacekeeping operations and humanitarian programs around the globe, including Haiti.
Such cuts, if approved by Congress, won’t help Haiti’s economic outlook, which already isn’t good, said Port-au-Prince-based economist Kesner Pharel. He noted that Hurricane Matthew in October, with its nearly $3 billion in damage to crops and infrastructure, only compounded the suffering.
The mix of problems, he said “has just given you more and more poor people. And with Hurricane Matthew, we have more and more people suffering from food insecurity.”
Pharel also disagreed with Kelly’s notion that the U.N.’s withdrawal was “indicative of Haiti’s success in recovering from the earthquake.”
“We cannot ignore the consequences of the departure of the U.N. on the housing, labor and exchange rate market,” he said.
Another observer noted that while the $346 million-a-year stabilization mission was going away, it would be replaced with 1,300 U.N. police officers under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which is for countries in conflict.
Former President Michel Martelly, who earlier in the day spoke about public-private partnerships at the United Nations, said ultimately what Haiti needs is trade and not aid. He thanked the U.S. for helping Haiti after the earthquake but said he would have liked to have seen an 18-month extension of TPS to allow the Haitian government time to put in action many of its promises.
“I know that the program coming to an end might scare some people, but it’s [also] a way to give them the wakeup call they need to do things. ... Haiti is not hell. Haiti is a great place, and a country doesn’t make a people, people make a country,” Martelly added. “I want my fellow Haitians to take their lives in their own hands. By going back to Haiti and helping creating a better Haiti, they will create a better people.”
On Tuesday, the DHS published its decision in the Federal Register, giving Haitians like Fremont notice that they will now have to re-register and file for work authorization, a process that takes at least two months, and costs about $480.
“For the people here, it’s very challenging because it’s very costly for them to renew things every six months,” said Randolph McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services.
“It’s clear from the tortured analysis that they want to end TPS for Haitians — not because country conditions indicate they should, but because they feel that they have given Haitians enough time,” McGrorty said about DHS’ rationale for the six-month extension. “Yet the community support and the reality of life in Haiti won’t allow them to do that at this time, so they kicked the can down the road.”