A refugee in an American maze
It’s hard to be a refugee — hard to leave home under terrible conditions, hard to build a life in an unfamiliar place.
And that’s before bureaucracy gets in the way. Let me tell you about a 24-year-old refugee named Tamarah Jean-Baptiste. She lives in New Bedford and wants to be a pediatric nurse, working with kids who have cancer. She arrived here from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, 18 and alone.
Her arrival, as she tells it, was harrowing. When the earthquake hit, she and her mother had been taking care of a four-year-old, the child of a family friend. He was a US citizen. Tamarah and her mother were not. When US officials airlifted Americans out of Haiti, they would only let one person accompany the child — and despite Tamarah’s tears and wails, her mother urged her to go.
She arrived in the United States under what is known as “Temporary Protected Status”: a legal resident, eligible to work, but with no path to a green card. And according to federal law, no path to a green card means no help with education.
This is something Tamarah didn’t realize at the start. She went to a public high school in Bradenton, Fla., living first with the four-year-old’s family and then at the home of Romy Viard, the school system’s liaison to Haitian families.
By phone a few weeks ago, Viard recalled Tamarah’s work ethic: how, with limited English and scant family support, she still managed to pass Florida’s graduation exams.
“Oh, she was very determined. It takes a lot of determination for someone to pass these exams the first year or the second year in this country,” Viard told me. “But a lot of immigrant students, that’s what they do. They work.”
After high school, Tamarah set her sights on Miami Dade College, saving money by working a restaurant-hostessing job. But when she tried to enroll, she was told she didn’t qualify for in-state tuition because of her immigration status. The money she had wasn’t nearly enough. And she was ineligible for federal financial aid.
Tamarah begged school officials, repeatedly, but they were right. A US Department of Education spokesman explained to me that, under federal law, only certain categories of immigrants are eligible for college aid. These include refugees, people granted asylum, and people who arrive under something known as “Cuban Haitian Entrant Status.”
But those on Temporary Protected Status are ineligible because, according to the education department’s rule book, “it provides no conversion to permanent-resident status.” And so, in a country that grants college aid to some refugees and some Haitians, Tamarah — a refugee from Haiti — doesn’t qualify.
This thwarts good intentions and makes no sense. In practice, Temporary Protected Status is regularly renewed. And if Tamarah can get a decent job in medicine, she may find the means to stay in the US. But lowering the hurdles she faces would require a hard look at immigration law: the incentives and disincentives it creates, the way it stymies people who, like generations past, are trying to do well and to do good.
The political climate suggests that won’t happen soon.
And so Tamarah has been moving around, living with relatives and friends in different states, slowly getting an education. She currently works two jobs – at a rehabilitation nursing home, then on the overnight shift at a group home for people with brain injuries and developmental disabilities.
On top of that, she studies at Massasoit Community College, where she just finished classes in psychology and statistics. She plans to take anatomy and nutrition next semester. She applied for financial aid and was again told no; one school official turned a computer screen around to show her the cold, hard text.
So she’s paying out of pocket on a monthly plan, realizing how long it will take, at this rate, to get a degree. Every day or two, she talks to her mother back in Haiti.
“Some days you wake up and you find yourself all by yourself,” she told me. “There are some days when you just want to quit, but I want to make my family proud.”
Hers is very much an American spirit — if only America could see fit to accommodate it.