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Haitians in U.S. under protected status worry for future here

Monday, May 22, 2017

All of a sudden the walls were shaking.

Stephane Rony Casseus was doing his algebra homework when it happened. The house seemed on the verge of cracking to pieces. His twin sister and a maid ran outside. His grandmother got on her knees to pray, and he cajoled her to get up and come with him.

As they left, he said, “The house was going down.”

That was Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in January 2010. The Caribbean nation was hit by a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake and many aftershocks. The temblors crippled the country’s infrastructure and plunged a largely poor population into homelessness. It killed anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 people, by different estimates.

Casseus, then 11, and his sister, Stephanie, were among the lucky ones who could fly to the United States on temporary visas after their mother sought safe haven for them while the situation improved. They came to live with an aunt in Elmont, and their mother joined them later. They remain here; there is no home for them in Haiti.

Immigrants in their situation were granted “temporary protected status,” or TPS, a humanitarian designation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that allowed them to stay past the visas’ expiration and get work permits. Haitians who already were here illegally also were permitted to apply for the protected status and remain here.

But the protections, granted during the administration of former President Barack Obama, have an expiration date: July 22.

For the 58,706 Haitians living in the United States under TPS as of the end of 2016, the approaching deadline is causing a lot of anxiety, advocates said. They don’t know whether they will be welcome to stay or would become deportation targets under President Donald Trump’s immigration enforcement policies.

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a national nonprofit based in San Francisco, estimates that about 9,400 Haitians in the New York and New Jersey metro area have TPS.

For Casseus, it is difficult to think about anything else. He hopes to stay, grow his part-time work as a physical trainer into a business, and make a life here.

“Right now, I am going crazy,” said Casseus, 19, a Sewanhaka High School graduate and student at Queensborough Community College. “If I go back, it would be messing up my future.”

Immigrant advocates, already concerned, became more worried in recent weeks. Department of Homeland Security documents, leaked to USA Today and The Associated Press, indicated the agency was considering either not extending the program or inquiring into the criminal records of TPS holders to deny them status.

If temporary protected status ends, “many people will not go back, because they have nothing to go back to,” said Mimi Pierre Johnson, president of the Haitian American Political Action Committee of New York, a group based in Central Islip. “You are targeting people who are part of our society and turning them into people who are part of the broken immigration system.”

Critics of the TPS program, intended as a form of relief for countries in distress, said the status has been abused to the point that it is akin to conveying its holders a permanent visa.

“When it starts getting extended out decades, then the ‘T’ in TPS loses all meaning,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group in Washington, D.C., that favors restrictive immigration policies. “The standard seems to be that these countries have to be ideal before people can go back there. But let’s be honest, these countries have been far from ideal” before disaster struck.

A coalition of faith, immigrant and labor rights leaders — including Catholics, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, organized by the advocacy group Long Island Jobs With Justice and the SEIU 32BJ labor union — threw its support behind the program.

They asked Republican Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) to intercede on behalf of a Haitian community estimated at more than 23,000 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Read m0re in Newsday.