The Department of Homeland Security has agreed to give a brief reprieve to nearly 60,000 Haitians who have been allowed to live and work legally in the United States since a massive earthquake devastated their country, but warned them that they should prepare for a return home.
Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly announced Monday that he had decided to extend for six more months the designation of “temporary protected status,” which allows immigrants from countries deemed too dangerous to return because of war or environmental disaster to stay temporarily.
Kelly said he agreed to extend the status through Jan. 22, 2018, “after careful review of the current conditions in Haiti and conversations with the Haitian government.”
But he cautioned that the more than 58,000 Haitians who currently have protected status should begin to prepare to return to Haiti.
“This six-month extension 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 in a statement.
“I believe there are indications that Haiti — if its recovery from the 2010 earthquake continues at pace — may not warrant further TPS extension past January 2018,” he said.
A broad swath of advocacy groups, from doctors to religious leaders to union officials and politicians from both parties, had called on the government to extend the program for Haitians for at least another year. The decision affects more than 4,300 Haitians living in Massachusetts and parts of New Hampshire.
Many had worried the Trump administration planned to end the program for Haitians completely after the US Citizenship and Immigration Services recommended that Kelly not renew it.
Kelly’s decision to extend the program was met with muted relief from the Haitian community and others who had advocated for the extension.
“It buys some time and it clearly is a reaction to the outpouring of support for the Haitians who are here,” said Brian Lang, president of UNITE Here, Local 26, a union that represents hospitality workers in Boston, a large portion of whom are Haitian.
“We need to continue to push not only for them but for meaningful immigration reform and by that I mean a genuine path to citizenship that allows families to stay reunited or be reunited,” Lang said.
Senator Ed Markey, who pushed for extending the program, praised Kelly’s decision in a statement, calling it a “a good step” and urging him to extend the program for another year.
“This decision reflects the compassion and generosity of spirit that should be the hallmark of US policy toward Haitians in the United States who are unable to safely return to their homeland,” said Markey, who is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Governor Charlie Baker, who said he reached out personally to Kelly to ask for an extension, also said he was pleased with the decision.
“I think that’s a positive development,” Baker told reporters at the State House. “Haiti obviously has many issues. . . . The fact they’ve put a delay in place is a good thing.”
But advocates for tighter immigration controls said those who see the decision as a potential path to further extensions are failing to read the fine print.
“They seem to be ignoring the part of the release that says Haitians should use this time to prepare for return,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.
“The fact that it was not just renewed for another 18 months and there was no redesignation possibly indicates that the Trump administration is trying to wind down TPS for Haitians,” he said.
The Rev. Dieufort Fleurissaint, a Haitian pastor in Mattapan, said the decision will do little to ease the stress Haitian nationals have been feeling over the last four months since Trump took office.
“The anxiety will not be erased any time soon when learning that it’s only a six month extension,” said Fleurissaint, whose Evangelical Christian church, the Voice of Gospel Tabernacle, has 250 members of Haitian descent.
The decision will do little for Haitians looking for new work, because employers may not want to take a chance on an employee who may leave after only a few months, Fleurissaint said.
Still, he said, Kelly’s decision was much better than the alternative.
“They are still saying extension,” Fleurissaint said. “So it’s a bit more comforting word than termination.”
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.