Three weeks before the Trump administration announced that it will end Temporary Protected Status for Haitians because the country no longer met the requirements for the temporary relief, documents released by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as part of a lawsuit indicate Haiti remains vulnerable with continuing housing and food shortages.
"Many of the conditions prompting the original January 2010 TPS designation persist," an 18-page October 2017 memo from USCIS said.
That view differs from the one expressed by USCIS Director Francis Cissna in a Nov. 3 memo for Department of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Cissna mentions the report but concludes that "Haiti has made significant progress in recovering from the 2010 earthquake, and no longer continues to meet the conditions for designation."
Cissna argues that "while lingering effects of the 2010 earthquake remain in housing, infrastructure, damage to the economy, health, sanitation services, security risks and emergency response capacity, Haiti has made significant progress in addressing issues specific to the earthquake."
He cites the smooth withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers, the successful completion of the presidential election, the 98 percent closure of camps that sprang up after the quake and Haitian President Jovenel Moïse's April 2017 announcement that he will rebuild the quake-destroyed presidential palace. Cissna also lists Haiti's erratic GDP growth, which averaged 1.9 percent between 2010 and 2016, as being "predominately positive."
But the report paints a much starker picture of the dire conditions most Haitians currently enrolled in TPS will have to face once the designation terminatesin July 2019. DHS estimates that about 40,000 Haitians are enrolled in TPS, which was granted by the Obama administration after the earthquake in order for Haitians to live and work legally in the United States.
The report points out that Haiti's recovery has been affected by a series of challenges. As of August 2017, the country continued "to be affected by a convergence of humanitarian needs including food insecurity, internal displacement, an influx of returnees from the Dominican Republic, the persistence of cholera and the lingering impact of various natural disasters."
"Although some progress regarding reconstruction and recovery has been made in a variety of sectors, billions of dollars in pledged foreign assistance never materialized, and the pace and scope of Haiti's recovery has been uneven," the USCIS memo said.
While post-earthquake camps are closing, Haiti "still faces considerable obstacles related to housing." By the Haitian government's own estimate, the country will need "as many as 500,000 additional housing units over the next 10 years to make up for its shortage prior to the earthquake," the report said.
"There is a real disconnect between this USCIS report and the recommendation from Cissna," said Sejal Zota, legal director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, which filed the lawsuit along with several other lawyers including Miami immigration attorney Ira Kurzban. "Either he completely disregarded his own report, which does say extraordinary conditions still persist...or he cherry picked the positive developments described in the memo."
"Their own internal report shows that these conditions continue, which is further evidence that they didn't perform a good faith review or that other factors were at play such as Trump's hostility toward immigrants of color or that they were applying some other changed standard of review," she added.
Zota would not say how she and her team intend to use the newly released documents. But Zota and lawyers in three other lawsuits over the administration's decision to end TPS for Haitians and immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras have argued that the decisions violated the constitution and were tainted by "racial animus."
"They don’t have this discretion to do what they think aligns with their politics," Zota said. "They have to look at the conditions on the ground. If there are conditions that continue to persist, and those conditions do, they have to continue TPS. The wording isn't they 'may continue,' it is 'the designation is continued.' "
In addition to the USCIS documents, lawyers also requested the Department of State's report related to the decision, though much of that was redacted. Zota said lawyers were told the information is part of the department's "deliberative process."
In addition to issuing its TPS recommendation on Haiti, the State Department also issued recommendations for Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. Honduras' decision was extended for six months after the DHS failed to make a decision, and Hondurans and Salvadorans, like Haitians, were given an 18-month extension before termination.
Zota said the fact that all four State Department recommendations were issued at the same time raises questions, and suggests "they were making a broader policy decision about TPS, rather than making a case-by-case report or review of each of these countries."
While no court date has been set on the lawsuit, the government's response is due by May 21.