A small crowd gathered Thursday to cheer the hoisting of the blue and red Haitian flag over Philadelphia City Hall, in honor of that country’s independence day.
But the celebration was overshadowed by a looming deadline that could affect more than 58,000 Haitians with temporary immigration status who are living in the U.S.
Women wearing smart blue or red skirt suits held signs that said, “TPS for Haitians!” or just “TPS.”
By Tuesday, U.S. officials must decide whether to renew a form of immigration relief called temporary protected status, or TPS, granted to immigrants from countries in extreme circumstances — usually a natural disaster or civil war.
The top citizenship and immigration official in the U.S. has recommended ending it, but Haitians say their country is still reeling from a string of natural disasters.
In January 2010, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale rocked Haiti near the capital of Port-au-Prince, killing at least a quarter of a million people and displacing many more. Within days, U.S. Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano granted Haitian nationals in the U.S. temporary protected status.
The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere was not poised for a quick recovery.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, U.N. peacekeepers introduced cholera, a quick-killing, waterborne disease that killed 9,000 more.
Against that backdrop, the U.S. redesignated or extended temporary protected status a total of four times, covering some new arrivals and Haitians who had been living illegally in the U.S.
“As a result of TPS, Haitians in the U.S. were able to come out of the shadows, get work authorization to be able to support themselves and their relatives in Haiti,” said Ayodele Gansallo, an attorney with the refugee support organization HIAS.
Haitians living outside of that country send more than $2 million back each year, about a quarter of that country’s GDP, according to data collected by the World Bank.
Now, temporary protected status for Haitians is set to expire on July 22, with the deadline on whether to let it end May 23.
In a letter dated April of this year, James McCament, the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services, recommended nonrenewal and phasing out the status in January.
To keep TPS, Haiti would have to fit the extremely distressed status that qualified it for the special status in the first place. Haiti, said McCament, has made “significant progress” since the earthquake, placing it out of the realm of TPS.
McCament did acknowledge ongoing problems in his letter.
There are food shortages and weak infrastructure. Last October, Hurricane Matthew struck the island’s southwest coast, killing more than 1,000 and washing out crops. Many people still live in temporary shelters constructed after the earthquake
News of McCament’s recommendation has rocked people shielded by the temporary status — including some of the more than 2,900 Haitian people without U.S. citizenship living in Philadelphia, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.
“It’s just not knowing what’s going to happen,” said one young Haitian-American woman, living in Philadelphia. “It scares me.”
She requested anonymity, because after living in the U.S. for nearly 25 years, almost no one in her life knows her immigration status. Brought to the U.S. from Haiti as a child by her mother, the woman had no papers before TPS. She said her parents kept her in the dark until she finished high school.
With TPS, she was able to get a driver’s license and a professional job in Center City. Now, there’s a real possibility she could be forced to return to a country she barely knows.
“You know, this is my life,” she said. “I became an American.”
As the deadline barrels closer, some in the Haitian community are more optimistic.
“President Donald Trump, he’s a believer, he’s a man of good heart, so something’s going to happen,” said the Rev. Nesly Nozil, who leads a Haitian church in Northwest Philadelphia.
During his campaign, Trump courted the Haitian vote in places like South Florida’s Little Haiti, and more than one Haitian expressed a belief that the president would intervene.
Ultimately, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly will make the call. DHS declined to comment on the letter from McCament and said the department is still “assessing circumstances in Haiti.”
If it’s not renewed, people with TPS have three options: return to Haiti, stay in the U.S. illegally and face deportation, or apply for another kind of immigration benefit — if they are eligible.