Wilna Destin’s eyes fill with tears when she talks about her 10-year-old son. She describes how frightened he is she will leave him. He asks who will hug him, or make him dinner, or help him with his homework if she goes away. She tries to reassure him, but this is not just normal separation anxiety—his fears are well-founded.
As one of the 58,000 Haitian nationals with temporary protected status (TPS)—a special immigration status granted to nationals of a country experiencing a humanitarian disaster and that allows recipients to live and work legally in the United States—this 10-year-old’s mother may be forced to return to Haiti in a matter of months, another victim of President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown. Last May, when the status was up for renewal, Haitians in Orlando took to the streets to rally for an extension. But that November, the Trump administration announced that the program would be ending for Haitians in July 2019, sending the community into a frenzy of panic and uncertainty.
I visited Destin in Orlando to talk about how the Haitian community here is coping with the impending end of TPS. A large number of the estimated 58,000 Haitian TPS beneficiaries live in Miami, which has one of the largest concentrations of Haitians in the United States—127,000 people—not all of whom are TPS recipients. But central Florida also has a sizable population, many working in the hospitality industry. Destin is an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 737 in Orlando, a labor union which represents thousands of workers in the hospitality sector, including Disney World.
She’s one of the 2,000 Haitians in the Orlando area who are TPS holders and whose lives have now been upended by the Trump administration’s attempt to strip away their legal status. With their fate hanging in the balance, left up to the federal courts, these Haitians have been thrust into immigration limbo. “Haitian immigrants have put down deep roots in the United States,” Rachel Gumpert, national press secretary for UNITE HERE, told Rewire News last year. “They are gainfully employed, working legally, and contributing to their local economies in huge ways. Florida tourism is run by Haitian immigrants.”
Most Haitian TPS beneficiaries, like Destin, are gainfully employed and completely integrated into American life. Seventy-five percent of TPS holders from Haiti report speaking English well, very well, or exclusively. Seventy-one percent completed high school and 37 percent attended college. Eighty-one percent have jobs, with the food service industry being the largest employer among them. And most notably, the estimated 58,000 Haitian TPS beneficiaries have 27,000 American-citizen children. One question that arises about the potential deportation of so many Haitians is how the tourist industries in which they work are preparing for their absence.
Temporary protected status was created as part of the Immigration Act of 1990 and was first granted to migrants from El Salvador who were fleeing the country’s civil war. Today, there are 10 countries with TPS, including Honduras, Somalia, and Nepal. Haitians were included in the program in 2010, when a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck outside the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, impacting its 2.8 million residents. The quake leveled buildings, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and left more than 1 million people displaced—damage that is still present today. The Obama administration granted Haitian nationals temporary protected status in 2010.
Destin came to the United States in 2000, well before the special status was granted. She filed for asylum but was denied and told to go back to Haiti. “The first 10 years were hard,” she says of her time as an undocumented immigrant. When the Obama administration granted TPS to Haitians, Destin and many others took advantage of the chance to emerge from the shadows. The Obama administration regularly renewed the special status in 18-month intervals.
After that, Destin was a housekeeper at Disney World until she landed her job at UNITE HERE as an organizer helping lead the campaign to raise the minimum wage. Destin sits in the main meeting union office in a nondescript Orlando office mall, dressed appropriately in a red union shirt. As we chatted about her previous jobs and her children, smatterings of conversations in Haitian Creole and Spanish echoed in the room.
Destin is one of nine TPS holders from all over the country who, along with their US citizen children, sued the federal government in March, arguing that the Trump administration’s decision to terminate TPS for Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Sudan was illegal. The lawsuit, which was organized with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, argues that school-aged US citizen children, like Destin’s, have a fundamental right to live in the country and be raised by their parents, and that the decision to terminate TPS was based on intentional discrimination. “I’m going to stay no matter what,” she says. “I don’t want to take [my kids] to Haiti, and I don’t want to leave them with the Department of Children and Family Services.” She shook her head, saying the government didn’t even consider one central point: “Even if you want to send the parents, what about the kids?”
In October, a federal judge issued an injunction that temporarily blocked the government from ending the program. “I was very happy about the decision last night,” Destin said after the injunction was granted. “We’re going to keep fighting for the right thing.” The government has said it will comply with the injunction, and extended TPS for the countries with rapidly approaching deadlines (but not Haiti). But the plaintiffs aren’t safe from deportation yet; the federal government immediately appealed the decision. Later that day, Destin will be heading to San Francisco for a hearing about the lawsuit.
Paradoxically, the argument that those with TPS status were victims of intentional discrimination was bolstered by Trump’s comments about Haitian immigrants, and immigrants in general. In December 2017, the New York Times reported that when a White House official said 15,000 Haitians had received visas to come to the United States that year, Trump responded, “They all have AIDs.” He was repeating a now-discredited statement made in 1983, during the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a memo about the groups most likely to have the devastating autoimmune disease, which they dubbed “the four Hs”: hemophiliacs, heroin users, homosexuals, and Haitians. Haitians were later removed from the memo, but the damage was severe; the island’s tourist industry collapsed and the stereotype that Haitians have AIDS continues today.
Trump’s comments occurred the month after the Department of Homeland Security announced that TPS would be ending for Haitian recipients and they would be expected to leave the country by July 2019. In January, the Washington Post reported that Trump had referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and parts of Africa as “shitholes.” And while the Trump administration was mulling over whether to extend TPS for Haitian recipients, the Associated Press reported in May that DHS was looking for evidence of crimes committed by Haitian immigrants, perhaps to find a reason to justify terminating the special status.
“I’m an immigrant. I am a mother. I am a wife and I’m a cousin. I’m a neighbor. And I’m a good person,” Destin says. “Immigrants? We are educated, we come here, and we learn a second language. What other people cannot do, we do it.”
The National TPS Alliance, an advocacy group made up of TPS beneficiaries from Haiti and several other countries, is lobbying so holders can adjust their status to legal permanent resident and become green card holders. But one of the key restrictions by DHS requires that anyone wishing to change their status from temporarily protected to a lawful permanent resident must leave the country and have a visa processed. But leaving the country could automatically trigger serious consequences for those who entered the country illegally: Re-entry bans for undocumented immigrants can last up to 10 years.
There are only two exceptions to the adjustment rule. Two federal appellate courts—the Ninth Circuit, which covers a vast stretch including Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona, and the Sixth Circuit, which encompasses Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee—ruled that if a TPS holder is eligible to become a lawful permanent resident through a family-based or employment-based petition, they may, even if they entered the country illegally.
Even TPS recipients who are married to American citizens are finding it nearly impossible to remain in the United States. Nervela Charles is from Carrefour, a city outside Port-au-Prince, and moved to central Florida in 2003. “I’ve been here a long time,” she tells Mother Jones. “If Trump says everybody [has to] go, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” She makes a modest living as one of the 500 Haitian TPS workers at Disney World. Every day, she says, she wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to take the 45-minute to one-hour trip to the park where she works as a housekeeper. There, she and her co-workers each clean 18 rooms a day. “We pay taxes and we help the country,” Charles says.
She sits in her cramped but cozy home in Auburndale, Florida, and says her husband, who is an American citizen, talks about getting a green card for her nearly every day. But when she consulted a lawyer about adjusting her status, she was told that although it was possible, she would have to return to Haiti to await the visa process—which can take years. “That’s why I’m very scared,” Charles explains. “I think they’re going to ask me to go [back] to Haiti.” Charles begins to openly weep as she thinks about the prospect of returning to Haiti. “My country offers me nothing. I can’t stay in my country.”
Some immigrants have considered moving to another country like Canada, despite the fact that Canada’s immigration policies often mirror those of the United States, minus the hateful rhetoric. In June 2017, after a WhatsApp message started a rumor that Canada was accepting Haitian immigrants with and without TPS, thousands of Haitians headed to the Canadian border. The government struggled to find housing, food, and translators for the 6,000 Haitians crossing the border. What the message failed to mention was that while the Canadian government would allow asylum seekers to work legally and receive health care in the country, they would still need to show up to their scheduled hearing with an immigration judge, who would then decide if they would be allowed to stay. That year, the Canadian government processed 298 Haitian applications. Only 10 percent were granted refugee status.
For some immigrants in the United States, going into hiding seems like their only option, especially since, despite the US government insisting that former TPS recipients will not be targeted for removal, many fear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will use the information they provided to the government to deport them. Some plan to let their driver’s licenses expire and not renew them. Then there is a question of their home address: The only option would be to leave their official address and move in with a friend who has legal status.
If the lawsuit fails and the Trump administration continues with its plan to revoke TPS for the tens of thousands of Haitian nationals living in the country, becoming undocumented won’t be a new experience. “It was really hard before I got my TPS,” Destin says. “I have a feeling it’s going to start getting harder again.” Destin is committed to the fight, but others are less certain. “They’re afraid, and they say they don’t want to be involved because they don’t want to be deported,” she explains.
The premise behind ending TPS is that the issues caused by the earthquake have been resolved, and Haitians can return to a stable and prosperous country. But living in Haiti is not easy. A tiny, wealthy minority live in homes and neighborhoods that rival rich communities in the United States, but even the middle classes struggle to make ends meet. The high cost of food, medicine, and schooling, coupled with meager wages, usually earns Haiti the title of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. According to the World Bank, 59 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, while nearly 25 percent lives on just $1.25 a day. Thirty percent of the population is considered food insecure, and the infant mortality rate is 55 per 1,000 births; by contrast, the US rate is 5.9 per 1,000 births.
Like Destin, Charles has no plans to leave, regardless of what happens to her status in the future. “I’m staying here,” she says adamantly. “I don’t have nothing in Haiti. If I go to Haiti, where am I going to live?” She says she doesn’t have any family in the country to help her get on her feet.
When DHS began signaling it intended to end TPS for Haitian nationals, Disney issued a statement in support of extending the special status. “[W]e support efforts to extend the Temporary Protected Status for Haitian nationals,” it said. “The more than 500 cast members who are currently part of this program have been and are an important part of our Walt Disney World workforce in Central Florida.” Though they are often in lowly positions, Haitian TPS holders often do the jobs that keep the parks functioning. “These Disney cast members clean rooms, cook and serve food, and keep the parks clean,” Jeremy Cruz-Haicken, president of UNITE HERE Local 737, said in 2017. “They are the face of Florida’s multibillion tourist economy.”
When stopping TPS status for Haitians was first announced in November 2017, the Congressional Black Caucus, which includes Florida Democratic representatives Frederica Wilson and Val Demings, wrote a letter to DHS asking the agency to extend TPS for another 18 months. In February, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) introduced a bill that sought to prohibit the use of federal funds to implement the policy changes in the notices that terminate TPS for Haitians and other recipients. But unlike the international headlines that appeared following the Trump administration’s attempt to ban people from Muslim countries traveling to the country or its family separation policy at the border, the plight of TPS recipients did not attract widespread attention outside of immigrant communities and their advocates.
As with all Haitian TPS recipients, Destin and Charles are now completely dependent on the outcome of the lawsuit. If the Trump administration wins, TPS for Haitian nationals will end. Though the status was meant to be temporary, like generations of immigrants before them, most Haitians have established lives in the United States.
“I always work,” Destin says. “I come home, go to church, and take care of my family.” For the 10 years she was undocumented, she worked as a housekeeper and was paid $6.75 an hour under the table. “It wasn’t easy at all, but I did it.” Destin rejoiced when temporary protected status was made available to Haitian nationals. “I felt so happy, and I went back to school.” She obtained her certified nursing assistant license, but her real dream is to learn business administration.
In order to live out her version of the American dream, simply extending TPS won’t do. “When it expires, we’ll go right back to where we started, and in 18 months, we’ll have the same problem,” Destin explains. “I want something permanent.”