By Anthony Man and Mike Clary

May 22, 2017

A humanitarian program that has allowed Haitians to legally live and work in the U.S. after a series of calamities befell their country was extended Monday until January — a move that fell far short of the hopes of Haitian-American community leaders and a range of Florida elected officials.

“It’s bad news. We are disappointed,” said Ronald Surin, a Fort Lauderdale attorney with a large Haitian clientele. He said the six-month extension of the program that was set to expire in July is “just a period for people to finalize their plans, gather their belongings and depart this country.”

Haitian-American community leaders wanted a full, 18-month extension of temporary protected status, which prevents deportation but does not grant a path to permanent residence or citizenship.

The worst part about the possible end is the prospect of parents forced to return to Haiti having to decide what to do with their children who are U.S. citizens, said Aude M.L. Sicard, of Pembroke Pines, the former longtime president of the Haitian-American Democratic Club of Broward.

“It’s heartbreaking to think that families could be divided,” Sicard said. “Most likely, parents that would be deported would not want to bring their children with them knowing the situation in Haiti is a disaster. Any parent, mother or father, would want to leave their kids here knowing that at least they can have food and education.”

Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami, said her organization represents “a number of Haitians with TPS, and the last several months have been torture for them. This just extends their fear and anxiety.”

Protected status was given to Haitians in the United States after a devastating 2010 earthquake and has been repeatedly extended as the country recovered slowly, often with setbacks. Haiti has experienced an epidemic of cholera introduced to the country by United Nations forces brought in to help after the earthquake. Its main food-growing region was devastated last year by Hurricane Matthew.

Surin’s downbeat assessment of the six-month extension echoed the way it was described by the Trump administration’s homeland security secretary, John Kelly.

In a written statement, Kelly said it “should allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States, and should also provide the Haitian government with the time it needs to prepare for the future repatriation of all current TPS recipients.”

Kelly said Haiti has “made progress across several fronts.” He cited multiple signs of progress including the closing of the vast majority of camps for displaced residents, the plan to rebuild the Haitian president’s residence in Port-au-Prince and the withdrawal of the U.N. stabilization mission.

South Floridians with ties to Haiti and elected officials with lots of Haitian-American constituents said there hasn’t been much progress on recovery. And, they said, there is no way the country can absorb the return of 58,000 people who have protected status. An April report from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center said the largest concentration of Haitians with temporary protected status were in South Florida. The New York metropolitan area was second.

Miami immigration attorney Ira Kurzban said the six-month extension is “completely inadequate to address the cholera epidemic, the earthquake and the mass destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti.”

Before the six months is up, the Department of Homeland Security said Kelly would re-evaluate the decision.

“We are being positive,” Sicard said. “Just because it was renewed for six months does not mean we will stop fighting for the full 18 months.”

State Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Lantana, whose Palm Beach County district has a large Haitian-American population, said he and others would redouble their efforts to convince the Trump administration to continue the protected status.

“I don’t see it as a defeat. I see it as the beginning of a victory. This is an opportunity within the next six months,” he said.

Jacquet, whose parents were born in Haiti, said he typically visits the country twice a year. He and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat who represents Miami’s Little Haiti community, both said they’d like Trump administration officials to visit Haiti.

Each offered to act as a guide.

“The question is simple: Is Haiti ready?” Jacquet said. “There is not question. The answer is clear. Haiti is not ready to receive nearly 60,000 folks to come back.”

Wilson, whose district includes part of south Broward, said in a statement that “it is one thing to read facts and figures about the effects of a series of natural disasters that have wreaked havoc there, but it is impossible to accurately assess the tumultuous conditions without actually seeing it up close and in person.”

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which works to limit immigration to the U.S., said his reading of Kelly’s decision indicates the latest extension is the final one. And, he said, that’s appropriate.

“The circumstances in our view don’t necessarily justify another extension. But at least the administration here signaled that they are bringing this to an end,” he said. “The triggering event [the earthquake] took place in January of 2010. That’s seven and a half years ago. The ‘t’ in TPS stands for temporary. And at some point there has to be some movement on sending people back to their home countries.”

Wilson’s view is between Surin’s pessimism and Sicard’s optimism. “While this news will give the tens of thousands of Haitians anxiously waiting to learn the program’s fate some measure of relief, this is in fact a cup half full situation.”

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