Trump to Haitians awaiting green cards: You can’t come to the U.S., wait in Haiti

The Trump administration is ending an Obama-era immigration program that allowed thousands of Haitians who were eligible to receive a green card in two years to wait it out in the United States with relatives.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Friday that it was ending the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program, and will now decide whether to allow Haitians to travel to the U.S. to await their lawful permanent resident status on a case-by-case and humanitarian basis.

The decision, USCIS said, is consistent with a 2017 executive order on Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements. The order limits access to asylum, expands the use of detention, enhances enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border, and ensures that parole into the U.S. is exercised on a case-by-case basis.

Many immigration advocates, including those who lobbied for the expedited U.S. policy on behalf of Haitians, were caught off guard by the announcement.

“I don’t think now is the time for the Trump administration to be rolling back protections for Haitian families, especially when Haiti is facing probably one of its worst political crises in history,” said Marleine Bastien, head of the Family Action Network Movement who is among those who advocated for the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program. “They should be doing more to facilitate this process..”

Recalling how Trump had promised to be a champion of Haitians during his presidential campaign, Bastien said, “This is how he’s showing his support?”

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Under the parole program, family members of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, who were living in Haiti and had already been approved for a family-based immigrant visa, had their reunification in the U.S. fast-tracked. The policy was modeled after a similar program for Cubans, and took effect for Haitians in 2015 after a nearly five-year battle by activists with bipartisan support from U.S. lawmakers.

According to USCIS, 8,302 Haitians have received travel documents under the parole program as of June 21.

“Many of these individuals are eligible to apply to adjust status to lawful permanent resident (LPR) and have already done so, in which case this termination will not affect those individuals with LPR status,” said USCIS spokeswoman Ana Santiago. She said there are fewer than 15 cases pending adjudication, and invitations to the Haitian parole program were last issued in 2016, under Obama.

Santiago said the Cuban program, under which the United States had agreed to grant at least 20,000 annual visas, remains under review. In addition to the Haitian program, USCIS announced it was ending a small program for aging Filipino World War II veterans to reunite with their loved ones before they die. There are 301 individuals who have received travel documents under the Filipino program since its 2016 inception and 75 cases were pending adjudication as of March 31, 2019, Santiago said.

“As with the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program, people who can be paroled into the United States under this program are beneficiaries of immigrant visa petitions, but because of lengthy backlogs that affect Filipino nationals many of these individuals have faced interminable waits,” said Tom Jawetz, vice president for Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “Ending this tiny program is un-American and unconscionable.”

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Jawetz, an immigration rights advocate, said the program for Haitians has nothing to do with increasing immigration to the U.S. and ending it is “inhumane and [a] counterproductive thing to do.”

“The program,” he said, “just provides an opportunity for families to reunite more quickly, understanding the day-to-day challenges that families in Haiti are undergoing.”

Like the granting of Temporary Protected Status to Haiti to help its recovery after its devastating 2010 earthquake, Haitian Family Reunification was granted under similar arguments. The quake killed more than 300,000 and left 1. 5 million injured and an equal number homeless. Proponents of the measure argued that one way to help with the recovery is to address the backlog of Haitians — 100,000 at the time — waiting to legally migrate to the U.S. by accelerating the process.

It is unclear how many Haitians have benefited from the program, and how many will be affected by the decision. But while the program wasn’t perfect — advocates say Haitians faced a higher burden than Cubans — it was still an option for those hoping to accelerate their reunification with family at a time when Haiti still has not fully recovered from the quake and the country faces a worsening humanitarian crisis.

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“How the administration finds time to think about what the next harmful thing they can do to deserving immigrant groups is beyond me,” said lawyer Cheryl Little, director of Americans for Immigrants Justice in Miami. “This is yet another message to Haitians that their lives don’t count. Haitians have had to fight tooth and nail for decades for justice, and every time it looks like they get one or two steps forward, it’s three or four steps back.”

Little, who was among those who advocated for the program, noted that after years of political crisis, devastating hurricanes and advocacy, Haitians were only finally granted the legal right to temporarily live and work in the United States following the 2010 quake. Then in 2017, the Trump administration announced it was rolling back the measure for Haiti and other nations. The decision has sparked several federal lawsuits and a temporary reprieve for hundreds of thousands of Haitians and Central American immigrants.

“People are on edge because they fear that they are going to lose their TPS status. And now to hear this news on top of everything else, it is just heartbreaking,” Little said. “For decades, family reunification was the cornerstone of our immigration policy and with good reason. Haitians have been waiting for these visas, they have done everything asked of them. But I guess because they are from a blank-hole country, they don’t get the ability to reunite with their loved one. ... If this administration is wanting Haitians to risk their lives on the high seas out of desperation, there is a likelihood that it can happen.”

Randolph McGrorty, the executive director of Catholic Legal Services, said while advocates in the past were forewarned about changing immigration policies, they received no warning on this decision.

The decision, he said, is in keeping with the Trump administration’s view that conditions in Haiti had “substantially improved” since the earthquake and the country could absorb its TPS holders.

“It’s the same motivation that led to them falsely and erroneously terminate TPS for Haitians,” McGrorty said.

It is also among several policy changes, he said, that are limiting people’s immigration options.

For example, he said, USCIS recently made a change in the interpretation of the law that now makes it difficult for TPS holders to readjust their status to get green cards if they had a past removal order and traveled outside of the United States with permission.

“It is part of an overall campaign to limit immigrants from countries they deem undesirable, immigrants they don’t like,” he said.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.