Trump’s ‘shithole countries’ comment may have a silver lining for Haitians

A woman holds up a sign that reads “Defend DACA Defend TPS” during a rally supporting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, outside the White House in Washington on Sept. 4, 2017. TPS stands for “Temporary Protected Status.”
A woman holds up a sign that reads “Defend DACA Defend TPS” during a rally supporting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, outside the White House in Washington on Sept. 4, 2017. TPS stands for “Temporary Protected Status.” AP

President Donald Trump’s descent into vulgarity during a high-stakes immigration meeting has brought attention to an often overlooked group in the national conversation: the over 300,000 immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua and potentially Honduras who could be forced to leave the U.S. in 2019.

The president’s remarks — he reportedly said “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out” and “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” — were in reference to immigrants living and working legally in the United States under Temporary Protected Status and to making changes to the visa lottery system.

The more than over 300,000 immigrants whose TPS will expire in 2019 have been largely under the radar compared to the 800,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. An Obama-era executive action known as DACA that allowed Dreamers to be protected from deportation expires in March, and is at the forefront of immigration discussions in Washington.

Several Miami lawmakers, including Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, along with Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, have offered legislative solutions that would provide a path to permanent residency for some or all TPS recipients. South Florida is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Haitians along with a sizable number of Salvadorans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans.

“This is obviously tragic and very disheartening and disappointing in every way but I’m generally an optimist and when anything like this happens there’s also opportunity,” Curbelo said. “Now, many more Americans are aware of these immigrants who are in our country legally, who work here, pay taxes here and have been here in some cases more than two decades. All of a sudden they are extremely relevant in discussions regarding an immigration compromise, where before the conversation was almost exclusively about Dreamers and border security.”

Until now, most of the lawmakers pushing for letting TPS beneficiaries stay represent large urban areas like Miami and New York City, and many of them are Democrats outside Miami. Curbelo’s office also said his bill that addresses Dreamers, called the Raising America’s Children Act, has gotten significantly more attention than his bill to help TPS beneficiaries from Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, called the ESPERER Act.

Curbelo said Trump’s vulgar comments will raise awareness outside Miami, and his spokesperson said “several Republicans have approached Carlos about it. They want to learn more.”

“We’ve added TPS beneficiaries as candidates for inclusion in a deal and that’s good news,” Curbelo said.

Ros-Lehtinen, who is cosponsoring Curbelo’s bill and a broader piece of TPS legislation that provides a path to permanent residency for all TPS beneficiaries, said she is happy that Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is pushing for a proposal that would help some TPS beneficiaries obtain a visa, but that more Republicans need to support the issue.

“Trump’s reprehensible comments about Haiti have surely shined a light on the discussion about TPS, and I hope that this will force my GOP colleagues to consider the plight of these worthy families who contribute to our nation,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “Unfortunately, I have not seen enough of my Republican colleagues expressing outrage at what are essentially race-based comments. I’m supportive of Senator Durbin’s idea to allocate 50,000 diversity visas to TPS beneficiaries in order to help normalize their status. The time to get this done is now. Our South Florida community cannot wait. I hope that we can return to Washington next week and work in a bipartisan fashion to figure out how to protect families who are fearful about their future in our great country.”

New York Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, who serves with Ros-Lehtinen on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he spoke with Haitian ambassador Paul Altidor on Friday and expressed support for a legislative TPS solution.

Engel “expressed his concerns about President Trump’s termination of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians living in the United States, which would rip families apart, and reiterated his desire to continue working toward a legislative solution to override the President’s TPS decision.”

But including TPS beneficiaries in an immigration deal will require support from Republican leaders in Congress, who will be loath to disappoint Trump. Trump suggested that he isn’t open to including visas for TPS beneficiaries as part of an immigration deal on Friday, but he didn’t offer specifics.

“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” Trump tweeted. “What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made — a big setback for DACA!”

Curbelo said he’s been educating lawmakers from both parties about the TPS issue for months, and he’s aware that the program was always meant to be a temporary solution for immigrants fleeing natural disasters or political turmoil. But the fact that TPS has been issued to some people for nearly 20 years means many TPS beneficiaries have “already assimilated” and therefore they should be able to stay.

“These are the types of immigrants that a lot of Republicans claim they want to allow in our country,” Curbelo said.

And he said that GOP leaders in Congress are committed to getting an immigration deal done in coordination with the White House, but “if that’s not possible we’ll try to do it anyway.”

“Without question, given these absurd comments people are not only aware of this population but I think they’re likely to have more sympathy than they would have otherwise,” Curbelo said. “I don’t have any guarantees nor can I make any guarantees, but I would say that [a solution] is a lot more likely than a few weeks ago.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

Related stories from Miami Herald