Haitians alarmed by renewed U.S. deportations as Trump era looms

By Sally Kantar, Refguees Deeply   |   Dec. 8, 2016 at 11:29 AM
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SAN DIEGO, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- Migrant and refugee advocates are among the many groups lobbying the outgoing Barack Obama administration to protect progressive policies before leaving office.

For Haitians fleeing to the United States, those policies already appear to be going in the opposite direction.

The United States has stepped up the deportation of Haitians in recent weeks, leaving Haitian advocates frustrated but still determined to push for a change of course before President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

On Sept. 22, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson announced the end of a five-year moratorium on deportations of Haitians who fled to the United States following the 2010 earthquake, citing improved conditions in Haiti. Two weeks later, Hurricane Matthew struck the country, leaving 1.4 million people in need of emergency aid, and deportations were put on hold again.

But as Americans went to the polls Nov. 8, The Miami Herald reported that the United States had "quietly resumed" deportation flights to Haiti a week earlier. The Department of Homeland Security confirmed in late November that more than 200 people had since been returned to Haiti. Johnson said they would "significantly expand" deportation of Haitians in the coming weeks.

The move disappointed immigrant advocates who had been urging a fresh approach to the growing number of Haitians arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Steven Forester, immigration policy coordinator with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, called the reinstatement of biweekly deportation flights "disingenuous."

"Certainly conditions [in Haiti] have not changed. The only thing that changed since the temporary hold after Hurricane Matthew was that Matthew was no longer in the headlines," he said.

Over the past year, more than 5,000 Haitians entered the United States. Advocates estimate that another 5,000 are stranded in Mexico waiting for appointments with overwhelmed U.S. border officials.

Tens of thousands more Haitians are thought to be en route from Brazil, where they sought work after the 2010 earthquake. Brazil's economy has since stagnated, creating an unfavorable environment for migrant laborers.

Since U.S. authorities stopped granting a form of "humanitarian parole" to Haitians in September, most Haitians are automatically detained at the border, overwhelming America's controversial and already strained immigration detention system. More than 4,400 Haitians are detained in the United States – comprising more than 10 percent of the 41,000 people currently in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.

A new approach

Before the U.S. election, Haitian representatives had focused their advocacy efforts on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

In October, 51 organizations and individuals in Florida – home to hundreds of thousands of Haitian Americans – wrote Clinton a letter urging several policy changes to alleviate the plight of displaced Haitians.

They called for the redesignation of Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, updating the eligibility date so that people who are currently displaced would still qualify for parole for humanitarian reasons, rather than face deportation.

They also argued for an expansion of the Haitian Family Reunification Parole program to make it easier for Haitians to join their families in the United States. Modeled on a similar program for Cubans, the HFRP makes roughly 100,000 Haitians on immigration wait-lists eligible for accelerated processing. But since the program's enactment in 2015, fewer than 2,000 people have taken advantage of it. Forester said this is due to "prohibitive" costs, as well as eligibility being limited to people who are two to three years away from receiving visas.

The Florida letter also called for the release of Haitians currently in detention, as well as an end to the policy of detaining Haitians who present themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Christian Ramirez, human rights director of Alliance San Diego, an organization involved in the aid effort for Haitians on the U.S. southern border, argues that in the long term the United States needs updated policies – rather than increased border enforcement – to address the realities of 21st-century human mobility.

"It is a problem of continental proportions, quite literally," he said of the Haitian crisis. "This is a population displaced for nearly a decade throughout the hemisphere. They do not squarely fit the categories of asylum seekers or refugees or economic migrants."

Electoral upset

Many advocates had their hopes for a new approach to Haitian displacement dashed by the election of Donald Trump.

"The president-elect has not been shy about making his stance on policies with regard to asylum seekers, refugees and displaced peoples, and we should all be very troubled," Ramirez said.

Haitian representatives are now pushing for Obama to implement their policy recommendations and stop deportations before his term ends in January. Even if the policies are immediately rolled back, this would give advocates a basis upon which to challenge Trump's policies.

"If deportations continue, no one will be able to blame Trump," said Forester. "But if Obama does the right thing and stops these deportations – given that they are unsafe and inappropriate – and if Trump were to start them again, then the onus would be on his administration."

Meanwhile, community volunteers aiding Haitians in the United States expect people to continue to make the long and dangerous journey to America.

Their numbers will depend on "how desperate people are," said Sam Jean-Francois, a Haitian-American volunteer working with displaced Haitians in the San Diego area. "I can see people still trying to make the trek. It's not easy – and they still thought it was preferable to staying."

Ramirez points to San Diego's United Methodist Church, which has temporarily housed many Haitians during the spike in arrivals in recent months, as an example of American values and generosity.

"If a church was able to open its doors, I'm sure that our government has the resources – as a matter of policy – to ensure that those who are coming to our country in desperate need are able to be treated with dignity and respect," he said. "Shutting our doors should not be an option."

Sally Kantar is a writer and editor focused on issues of conflict, displacement and ethnic minority rights. This article originally appeared on Refugees Deeply, and you can find the original here. For important news about the global migration crisis, you can sign up to the Refugees Deeply email list.

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