Is the presidential candidate who threw promises to Little Haiti throwing a dragnet over it now that he’s President?
Candidate Donald Trump pledged to Haitian-American voters here that he’d be their “greatest champion.” But the Associated Press reports the Trump Administration is fishing for criminals among Haitian immigrants – specifically the 50,000 Haitians living in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status, or TPS.
Administration critics say President Trump’s intent is to prove those Haitians are just like the Mexican “rapists and drug traffickers” he warned us about during his xenophobic campaign last year. Then, they say, he can rationalize terminating TPS for Haitians when it expires July 22 – ending their welcome by sending them home as his loyalists wave red-white-and-blue.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, where the emails requesting criminal data on Haitians originated, say that’s not the case. They insist DHS Secretary John Kelly just wants a better idea of who those thousands of Haitian TPS recipients are. But Kelly’s lieutenants might have saved him the embarrassment of an AP exposé if they’d just taken their boss aside and reminded him: you can’t get or keep TPS if you’ve been convicted of a felony in the U.S.
That, however, would have required actual familiarity with TPS, which Congress created in 1990 for people whose countries are too torched by political or natural disasters to safely return to. Haitians were first granted TPS after an earthquake wiped much of Haiti off the map in 2010.
Which is why the really significant DHS emails in the AP report aren’t about fingering Haitian felons. More revealing are the dispatches groping for reasons that Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, is now an OK place to live. Technically, that’s the sole criterion for whether the DHS secretary should extend or end TPS. And based on what the AP uncovered, Trump’s DHS seems fairly clueless about what’s involved.
In one missive, DHS policy chief Kathy Nuebel Kovarik tells her staff to “please dig for any stories…that would show how things are in Haiti – i.e., rebuilding stories, work of nonprofits, how the U.S. is helping certain industries.”
Astonishingly, Kovarik is essentially instructing DHS employees to do what any 8th-grade geography student resorts to at 11 o’clock the night before a paper is due: Google Haiti and slap some supporting information together.
That stands in disturbing contrast to an eight-page report U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, part of DHS, issued on Haiti last December, a month before Trump took office. Using on-the-ground assessments from federal agencies like USAID, it detailed why Haiti remains a hot mess that probably still isn’t equipped to take back 50,000 people in one fell swoop.
Among the most serious factors: acute housing and food shortages; a cholera epidemic that has killed 10,000 people; 40 percent unemployment; gutted infrastructure; “some of the world’s worst health indicators;” rampant violent crime; lingering political instability and an utter lack of “fully functioning governance institutions;” and environmental risks “exemplified by the impact of Hurricane Matthew in October 2016,” the worst storm to hit Haiti in half a century.
As a result, then Secretary of State John Kerry told Kelly’s predecessor, Jeh Johnson, that TPS should be extended for Haitians. Even so, last month Kelly’s acting USCIS director James McCament recommended, in a memo reported by USA Today, that Haiti TPS be ended.
But now we have a better, albeit troubling picture of how little care Trump’s DHS seems to be taking in building that case.
I’m not completely certain myself that things are still awful enough in Haiti to warrant continuing Haitian TPS. Even Kerry last December conceded “conditions in Haiti have improved since the earthquake;” and in January Haiti did finally swear in a new president, Jovenel Moïse, after political unrest kept Haiti without a head of state for a year.
Still, you have to ask yourself: which conclusion has firmer underpinning? Kerry’s? Or the more offhand verdict the Trump Administration seems to have already reached – and which it's trying to justify with Internet searches instead of inter-agency research?
Haitians know the answer. Which is why they don’t feel they’ve got much of a “champion” in the White House right now.