U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly continued to cast uncertainty Thursday on the fate of tens of thousands of Haitians who have been temporarily allowed to live and work in the United States, but he said Congress may ultimately resolve the issue by changing the legislation.
“This is squarely on them,” Kelly said in an interview with the Miami Herald about the Temporary Protective Status, or TPS, program that nationals from Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and six other countries are currently enrolled in. “I have a law that I am supposed to enforce and I think the members of Congress who are interested in this, and there are a lot of them, should probably sit down and talk about it and come up with some legislation to fix it. I think it’s on them.”
Kelly made a brief stop in Miami after a trip to Haiti Wednesday where he spent more than an hour discussing TPS and other Trump administration concerns with new Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and senior officials with the government and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.
His suggestion to Moïse: Start thinking about how to bring Haiti’s nearly 60,000 TPS recipients back to their home country by issuing travel documents or identification.
“TPS is not supposed to continue to be enforced until Haiti’s like Jamaica, or any country with a very functioning democracy [or] a relatively low unemployment rate. That’s not the point of it,” said Kelly, pushing back on critics who argue abruptly ending TPS will quickly harm the country’s already fragile economy.
“TPS was granted based on the  earthquake,” he said. “Things in Haiti were tough for decades prior to the earthquake, and will be tough for decades to come. But the reason TPS was granted was because of the earthquake.”
It should not, he said, have “to remain in place until Haiti is a completely functioning economy with no problems.”
Haitians on TPS, Kelly added, “need to start thinking about returning.”
Kelly’s Haiti visit came nine days after he extended the immigration benefit — which was set to expire on July 22 — for Haiti for an additional six months, which means it will now expire in January unless it is extended again. For months, advocates and lawmakers had urged an 18-month extension as the Obama administration had done.
In April, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship of Immigration Services, James McCament, recommended a final six-month extension for Haiti and then termination Jan. 22. Kelly’s decision doesn’t put an absolute end date on the program.
On Thursday, he said the argument that Haiti should keep receiving the benefit seven years after the cataclysmic quake left more than 300,000 dead, 1.5 million homeless and an equal number injured, is “questionable.”
“I looked at it real hard and decided to extend it for six months, which should give — in the event it’s not extended next time — opportunities for people that are living here in the United States to settle their issues here ... and by the same token, give the government of Haiti enough time to start thinking of how to reintegrate,” he said.
Asked whether TPS would be extended now that he’s met with Moïse and other Haitian government officials, Kelly said: “I don’t know. I literally don’t know.”
One factor that will go into his decision-making in the coming months, he said, will be if the Haitian government starts the process of reintegrating or preparing to reintegrate TPS recipients by providing them with travel documents.
Kelly said one challenge that he has faced in the top job at Homeland Security is that immigration benefits like TPS seemed to be automatically renewed.
“I go back to this issue of, the longer that people stay in the United States, the more of an argument they have that they have become Americanized and ‘Why do I have to leave?’” he said.
His review of the benefit comes as some congressional Republicans are seeking to functionally kill TPS by requiring Congress and the president to sign off on it, and as some nationals from Central America who also live in the U.S. under TPS are mounting their own campaign. On Thursday afternoon, Haitian community activists held a town hall in Miami on the issue.
Kelly noted that the U.S. continues to takes in 1.1 million legal immigrants annually, insisting that the current administration is “not an administration that’s against immigration. It’s an administration that’s against illegal immigration.”
Kelly, the former head of U.S. Southern Command in Miami, said he decided to travel to Haiti to speak to the president after meeting with the country’s ambassador to the U.S. and the foreign minister on TPS.
“Clearly he would like to see it extended at least another year,” Kelly said of Moïse.
He said several other concerns were raised by the U.S. — which currently does not have an ambassador in Haiti — such as how the Haitian National Police has to remain apolitical, and work for the people, “not for the president.”
“What they need is national police, probably a sub-unit within the national police border guards,” Kelly said. “An army is a lot of money for a country like Haiti... An Army that doesn’t always have a mission is the ‘Devil’s Workshop,’ with a lot of time on its hands. ... I think what money he does have he should focus on the national police. Make them better, more professional.”
Miami Herald staff writer Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report.