May 09. 2017 10:17PM

Trump administration seeking criminal history of Haitians

By Jacqueline Charles and Franco Ordonez
Miami Herald


Remains of a market in a small town called Kanyon on Oct. 6, 2016, in southwest Haiti after hurricane Matthew devastated the area. (Bahare Khodabande/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/TNS)

MIAMI — Haitian President Jovenel Moise will personally ask President Donald Trump not to end a humanitarian program that has protected tens of thousands of Haitians from deportation.

“He hopes that it will be prolonged,” Wilson Laleau, Haiti’s former finance minister and Moise’s chief of staff, told The Miami Herald Tuesday. “He will officially ask that of the American government.”

The public plea comes amid growing fears of a new deportation push as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security acknowledged compiling evidence on the crimes committed by Haitians enrolled in the Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, program.

The unprecedented move has sparked outrage among members of Congress and Haitian immigrant advocates, and sent shivers through Central American groups that also have found shelter in the U.S. under TPS.

“If it’s canceled for the Haitians, we know that it will be canceled for Hondurans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans,” said Franciso Portillo, president of the Miami-based Francisco Morazan Honduran Organization. He announced his advocacy group will launch its own TPS letter-writing campaign for Central Americans on Sunday.

More than 200,000 Hondurans, El Savadorans and Nicaraguans who have been allowed to live and work freely in the United States ever since Hurricane Mitch barreled through Central America in 1995. While the protection expires on July 22 for Haitians, it expires in January 2018 for Hondurans and Nicaraguans, and in March 2018 for Salvadorans.

The Associated Press on Tuesday published portions of internal emails from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, indicating the agency has made inquiries into the Haitian community’s criminal history. The emails also reveal that the agency wants to know how many of the 58,000 Haitians enrolled in the Temporary Protected Status program are taking advantage of public benefits, which they are not eligible to receive.

The revelation follows the creation of a DHS-run Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, or VOICE, office to help victims of crimes committed by immigrants, and on the heels of a recommendation by USCIS’s acting director, James McCament, to terminate TPS for Haitians as of January.

McCament made the recommendation to DHS Secretary John Kelly in an April 10 memo obtained by The Miami Herald. Kelly has until May 23 — 60 days before the program’s expiration date — to make a decision. The AP story said that while the move is considered to be unorthodox, it suggests that Kelly may be looking at other criteria in deciding whether the United States should continue the program for Haitians.

DHS said Tuesday that Kelly has yet to make a decision, and the secretary is continuing to review reports from his staff about conditions in Haiti, including McCament’s recommendation.

But some immigration advocates believe DHS is looking for a way to discontinue TPS, which was first granted to Haitians following their country’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

“This is what happens when you staff the DHS with immigration hardliners and extremists, then put a retired general to front for the operation in an attempt to make it seem normal,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice Education Fund.

Congressional lawmakers, immigration attorneys and advocates said TPS designation should only be based on conditions in Haiti.

“Haiti continues to suffer from the effects of a catastrophic earthquake, cholera epidemic, hurricane, and food insecurity crisis that provide ample grounds for extending TPS based on extraordinary and temporary conditions,” members of the Congressional Black Caucus said Tuesday in a statement. “Reports that USCIS is collecting crime statistics to justify the denial of TPS re-designation for Haiti defies both the letter and spirit of the law, while corroding the values of our nation of immigrants.”

Flabbergasted Haitian immigrant advocates called the move “a witch hunt” and “a big show,” because Haitian nationals with criminal records do not qualify for TPS or benefits. Recipients are required to be fingerprinted, and re-checked when the status is extended, immigration attorneys say.

“It is disheartening to hear that instead of renewing TPS for these hardworking families who are at risk of losing their jobs, Secretary Kelly has decided to go on a witch hunt for criminals,” said Marleine Bastien, a leading Haitian advocate and head of the Haitian Women of Miami.

Bastien, recalling Trump’s September campaign stop in Little Haiti before he became president, added: “President Trump promised to be Haitians’ best champion. It is time for him to show it.”

Jean Monestime, the first Haitian American elected to the Miami-Dade County Commission, also called on Trump to stop the investigations, which he said only serve “to send a message to the rest of the world that America is departing from its moral responsibilities.”

In the Congressional Black Caucus, Reps. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y.; John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.; Frederica Wilson, D-Fla.; Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; Chairman Cederic Richmond, D-La., and Utah Republican Mia Love, the first Haitian American elected to Congress, said the move was a continuation of Trump’s efforts to promote a false stereotype of the criminality of immigrants.

Citing a study by the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center, they noted that Haitian TPS-enrollees contribute nearly $35 million annually for Social Security benefits that they cannot receive. The study used data from the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey to determine that ending TPS for the roughly 300,000 Haitians, El Savadorans and Hondurans would cost U.S. taxpayers $3.1 billion.

“The administration has cast immigrants as drug dealers, sexual predators and terrorists who are a drain on our society,” the black lawmakers said. “However, the fact is that immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than non-immigrants and higher immigration rates are associated with lower crime rates. Moreover, immigrants of all backgrounds contribute to our economy.”

Steven Forester, the immigration policy coordinator with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, called the inquiries a way of trying to “demonize” Haitians, adding that “those who oppose any immigration at all may be grasping at straws.”

Randy McGrorty, an attorney and head of Catholic Legal Services, said he doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that Kelly’s request for criminal histories was made shortly after the VOICE office was launched.

“If you have two misdemeanors, no matter how minor, or one felony, you’re not eligible for TPS so that the people in the TPS programs have relatively clean criminal records, and they have to demonstrate that every 18 months to the U.S. government,” McGrorty said.

A senior administration official said the search for criminal histories was not related to VOICE.

Tom Jawetz, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, said sending Haitians back to a disaster-prone Haiti that is still recovering is not the right move.

“USCIS may be twisting itself into a pretzel to find a way to get to ’no’ but the decision lies with Secretary Kelly,” he said. “Haiti’s recovery from the 2010 earthquake and 2016 hurricane remains incomplete and very fragile and sending 50,000 people back now is short-sighted and dangerous.”

As a result of McCament’s recommendation, Haitian immigration advocates and Republican and Democratic lawmakers have stepped up their push to have the status renewed ahead of the July 22 expiration date. There have also been at least two petitions from Haitian activists asking for the program’s 18-month extension, along with letters from Republican and Democratic lawmakers and 416 faith-based leaders and organizations, and editorials in publications including The Miami Herald, Washington Post and New York Times.

While McCament points out in his recommendation to end TPS that Haiti had enormous problems even before the earthquake left more than 300,000 dead, 1.5 million homeless and an equal number injured, advocates note that the country hasn’t yet recovered. Additionally, Hurricane Matthew in October triggered a hunger and housing crisis in areas hit by its Category 4 winds.