The Biden administration will grant more than 100,000 Haitians in the US the opportunity to gain temporary protected status, shielding them from deportation and allowing them to obtain work permits, according to a Department of Homeland Security document provided to BuzzFeed News.
The decision, which immigrant advocates have been pushing for several months, comes as Haiti suffers from a growing political crisis after the opposition party’s calls for the president to step down failed. Reports of increased gang violence and kidnappings have roiled parts of the country, which is already struggling to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The Obama administration previously provided temporary protected status for Haitians who had been in the country continuously since 2010, after an earthquake hit near the capital of Port-au-Prince and, according to estimates, more than 200,000 people were killed. Biden administration officials note that the country has not fully recovered from the earthquake.
The designation of temporary protected status will apply to Haitians — or individuals without nationality who last resided in Haiti — who were in the US as of May 21. It will not apply to those who arrive after that day. The decision to create a new designation allows for an additional 100,000 Haitians to become eligible to apply for temporary protected status on top of the more than 50,000 who already have it. The designation of TPS runs for 18 months.
“Haiti is currently experiencing serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a statement. “After careful consideration, we determined that we must do what we can to support Haitian nationals in the United States until conditions in Haiti improve so they may safely return home.”
The Trump administration sought to undo the temporary protected status — with an administration official even pressing colleagues for research documenting criminal activity of Haitians in the US — as part of its efforts to restrict immigration. The plans, however, were later scuttled after federal court decisions. Those protections covered Haitians who had been in the US when then-president Barack Obama extended the status to them following the earthquake, and were set to run through October 2021.
Mayorkas consulted with the State Department in making his decision, choosing to grant TPS for Haiti “due to extraordinary and temporary conditions in Haiti that prevent nationals from returning safely, specifically, a political crisis and human rights abuses; serious security concerns; and the COVID-19 pandemic’s exacerbation of a dire economic situation and lack of access to food, water, and healthcare.”
The agency believes the “persistent effects of the 2010 earthquake have also exacerbated the severity of the extraordinary and temporary conditions in Haiti currently.”
TPS can be granted by the secretary of homeland security in instances in which individuals cannot be safely removed to their home country because of temporary conditions in the country, such as armed conflict, environmental disasters, and other extreme circumstances.
DHS officials will soon file a notice in the Federal Register to allow Haitians currently in the US to obtain the protections.
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez praised the Biden administration's move in a statement Saturday, saying the protections for Haitians in the US are urgently needed.
"The last thing our country should be doing is forcing an entire community in the US to decide between packing up their lives and tearing their families apart by self-deporting, or becoming undocumented and forced into the shadows of our society," Menendez said.
Advocates also applauded the decision.
“Haitian communities are celebrating today, not just for ourselves, but because today’s news is a reminder to all of us that efforts to do what’s right are effective,” said Shelly Clermenco, a Haitian TPS holder and advocate with UndocuBlack, a network of current and former undocumented Black people. “But this is just the beginning. We need Congress to do what is right and provide a path to citizenship so that my family and I can live fully and freely.”
In March, experts on Haiti told BuzzFeed News that the political situation in the country had deteriorated.
“People are not feeling safe to leave their homes. It has gotten worse in recent weeks,” said Nicole Phillips, an adjunct professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, who explained that there had been a proliferation of gangs and gang violence, including kidnappings, in the country.
Both Republicans and Democrats have called on President Joe Biden to extend the protections to Haitians.
Menendez and his Republican colleague Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida called on the Biden administration in March to issue a new round of deportation protections for Haitian immigrants in the US because of the deteriorating situation in their home country, according to a letter obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Voice of America also reported in March that a UN official said that half the Haitian population needed humanitarian assistance.
The situation in Haiti has worsened in recent months, according to an internal DHS report, which documents how Haitian President Jovenel Moïse has been ruling without a legislative body since January 2020 and that there are concerns he is becoming “increasingly authoritarian as he relies on executive decrees to accomplish his agenda.” Meanwhile, protests have rocked the country, and the government has “employed violence” against demonstrators, according to the report.