By Jacqueline Charles, April 21, 2017

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The Trump administration is recommending sending tens of thousands of Haitians back to their homeland because it believes conditions have significantly improved in the disaster-prone, poverty-stricken nation.

But the move comes as more than 40,000 Haitians continue to call makeshift shelters and tents homes — seven years after Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake — and as severe hunger and housing crises plague the country’s southern region six months after a deadly Hurricane Matthew wiped out roads, home and farmland.

“If they send everyone back to Haiti, they might as well be sending us to die,” said Cadeus Chaleus, 70, who after 16 years of living as an undocumented immigrant in Miami has spent the past seven years living without fear of deportation. “Despite what they say, things have not improved at home.”

James McCament, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Temporary Protected Status, the immigration relief that has allowed Haitians to live and work freely in the United States, should be terminated. The Obama administration granted the status following the earthquake, which left more than 300,000 dead, 1.5 million injured and an equal number homeless.

“Conditions in Haiti no longer support its designation for TPS,” McCament said in a memo to U.S. Department of Homeland Secretary John F. Kelly obtained by the Miami Herald.

McCament’s recommendations came as a surprise to many, including Haitian and immigration advocates who have been pushing for the extension of TPS before July 22, when it is up for renewal.

Last month, 10 members of the South Florida congressional delegation wrote to Kelly urging for renewal, and Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski asked Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo to include language on TPS in a bill he refiled that would allow individuals brought illegally as children to remain in the country.

McCament is recommending renewal, but only for an additional six months so that there could be “a period of orderly transition.”

“This is very, very distressing to the community,” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of FANM (Haitian Women of Miami). “We’ve been fielding calls all day from families with children in school, college students, people with businesses.”

On Friday, Bastien and others concluded that Haiti is ill prepared to handle 58,000 returnees — the number of Haitians currently enrolled in TPS.

Activists are planning to appeal directly to members of Congress, Kelly and President Donald Trump, who told Haitian voters during a Miami campaign stop last year: “I want to be your greatest champion.”

“If any country qualifies for TPS right now, it’s Haiti. If the Trump administration goes through with this, it will be the most distressing, anti-family, anti-black and racist decision any administration can take,” Bastien said. “People are still dying as a result of the imported cholera epidemic and Hurricane Matthew destroyed the southern peninsula, where we have people eating dirt and living in caves.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer refused to comment on McCament’s recommendation. He directed inquiries to Homeland Security, whose spokeswoman, Gillian Christensen, also declined to comment.

Immigration advocates fear the end of the status for Haitians would have consequences beyond Haiti, which elected new president Jovenel Moïse in February and will see an end to its 13-year United Nations peacekeeping mission on Oct. 15.

“TPS beneficiaries contribute greatly to our economy,” said attorney Cheryl Little, whose Americans for Immigrant Justice organization also represents some of the estimated 300,000 Central Americans who have been enjoying the special status since 1999. “They are growing our economy and to suddenly say, ‘There is a new sheriff in town, pack your bags,’ it’s heartless and it’s stupid.”

The Center for American Progress had been closely monitoring the decision on Haiti because it’s the “first test of this administration’s commitment to handle TPS determinations in an apolitical manner that respects human rights and the letter of the law,” said Tom Jawetz, the center’s vice president for immigration policy.

Jawetz notes that in December 2016, the State Department recommended extension based on ongoing conditions in Haiti. He said the new recommendation suggests the Trump administration is “putting politics and ideology over human lives and regional security.”

Miami Democrat Rep. Frederica Wilson, who visited Haiti with Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen after Matthew left $2.8 billion’s worth of damage, said Haiti’s government has to push back on the recommendation. Along with Ros-Lehtinen and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, she also reiterated a call for Kelly to renew the benefit.

“The only thing that is going to stop this is for the Haitian president to say he cannot accept 50,000 people,” Wilson said of Moïse, whose government did not respond to the Herald’s inquiry for comment. “He has to say, ‘There is nowhere for them to go; We have a crisis that we have not settled from the earthquake, we still have people in tent cities.’ ”

Wilson called McCament’s recommendations “nuts.”

“Mr. Trump needs to send a task force from his State Department to assess the conditions on the ground and he will come to the same conclusions that we have come to.”

McClatchy Washington Bureau Correspondents Anita Kumar and Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.

To read this article in the Miami Herald, click here