Haitians fight to extend their temporary legal status among larger DACA talk


Farah Larrieux is one of many Haitians at risk of deportation if the Trump administration does not extend her TPS status. (Farah Larrieux)

Farah Larrieux has built a successful career for herself. She’s a former radio and television host in Haiti, she owns her own communications management company in the U.S., and she lives comfortably in her South Florida home. But, like thousands of Haitians with temporary status in the U.S., she now stands in jeopardy of losing everything she has built in America.

“I’m a woman that has major things going on,” Larrieux said. “Anytime you decide to destroy someone’s life like that, that’s not good, that’s evil.”

Larrieux is one of more than 50,000 Haitians living the United States under Temporary Protected Status, a legal category granted to those who lacked documentation in the U.S. after their homeland was devastated by an earthquake in 2010. The Obama administration renewed the program every 18 months after the status was first extended to Haitians — but in May, the Trump administration announced only a 6-month extension. Many now fear the administration will not renew it when it expires January 22.

If that happens, Larrieux and thousands of others face the prospect of deportation to Haiti.

“I don’t like to think about it, because I want to focus my energy on fighting to have it,” said Larrieux, who has now become a vocal advocate for the program’s extension.

Larrieux is one of the few Haitians on temporary status willing to speak out about her situation. Many others have become fearful and even discouraged under a growing climate of fear and uncertainty about the future of their legal status.

The issue has sparked concern from immigration advocates across the country — particularly in regions with high Haitian populations like New York. In New York City as many as 20,000 Haitians have TPS, immigration activists and city leaders say. That number includes many who have built businesses and put down deep roots in America.

Despite the title of “temporary,” the U.S. government has continually renewed TPS status for recipients from several countries for 15 years or more. For example, TPS status has been granted to Nicaraguans and Hondurans in the U.S. since 1999, and to Somalians since 1991.

But now as the deadline for Haiti inches nearer, many advocates say their effort to bring attention to it has been overshadowed by the national debate over renewal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, another temporary legal protection that benefits young people brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents.

In September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the termination of DACA, placing the burden on Congress to decide whether to extend it before a March 5 deadline. Nearly 800,000 immigrants, most of them from Mexico and other Latin American countries, have been protected from deportation by the Obama-era status.

“Now, DACA is more important than TPS,” said Herold Dasque, former executive director of Haitian-Americans for Progress. “You have the state of New York claiming they’re going to sue the administration [on behalf of DACA recipients], but nobody’s suing for TPS.”

“I can tell you my general sentiment with TPS is discouraged and defeated,” said Brooklyn-based immigration lawyer Emmanuel Depas. “DACA jumped in front of TPS; right now Congress is paying attention to DACA.”

The Trump administration has until November 22 to announce its final decision on an extension for Haitians, but some worry the administration’s decision to end DACA does not bode well for them.

“It’s about my human rights,” said Larrieux, whose relatives are still in Haiti. “It’s not easy to go back to my family and go back to stay in the house, in a country where there’s no electricity, there’s no water, there’s a lot of poverty.”

This is not the first time Larrieux has faced losing it all.

Larrieux first traveled to the U.S. from Port-au-Prince, Haiti on a tourist visa in 2005, after deciding Haiti was “too small” for her dreams of expanding her brand as a TV and radio host. But she says her plans for full residency fell through in 2007, when she received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security indicating her husband — whom she has since divorced — had withdrawn her petition for residency.

“When deportation proceedings started, I wasn’t going to be able to support my business,” she said. “I went through depression and was even suicidal.”

Then came the 2010 earthquake, a huge tragedy for Haiti, but ironically a life-saver for Larrieux. She applied for temporary protected status, which allowed her to rebuild a life and career in the U.S. over the past seven years.

“It takes energy to focus on something else — on the positivity, on producing, on continuing with my day to day life like everything’s okay,” Larrieux said. “But I prefer to focus my energy on that than to think, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Legal ramifications

While under temporary status, Larrieux spent years building up her communication management business, THELAR Management Group. Her story is not unusual for TPS holders, many of whom have also built long-term ties to America.

“When people applied to TPS, I told them not to worry,” said Depas, the Brooklyn immigration lawyer, who represents several clients under the program. “I anticipated this program to last for years. I never anticipated it would actually end.”

Haitians are the third largest TPS group in the U.S., only behind immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras; immigrants from both of those groups also face expiration dates for their protected status in early 2018. About a dozen countries are currently covered by TPS grants, made in the wake of natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake, or ongoing civil conflict.

If Haiti is not extended, Haitians registered under the program will receive a letter from the Department of Homeland Security summoning them to immigration court, according to Depas. Since TPS holders have to reapply every 18 months, DHS already has their latest address, contact information, and fingerprints. If they do not show up in court, Depas said, they could be deported “in absentia,” or without a hearing.

DACA complicates the fight

Despite different eligibility requirements, TPS and DACA offer similar benefits to young immigrants working and studying in the U.S. — but only about 2,200 young Haitians have DACA status, compared with the 50,000 with TPS, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The reason: President Obama introduced DACA in 2012, two years after TPS was offered to Haiti, and immigrants cannot have both statuses.

It doesn’t help that “The Dreamer movement has long been looked at as a Latino thing,” as Ninaj Raoul, director of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees in Brooklyn, puts it. It’s why Raoul is working to join forces with organizations that represent other TPS communities.

Larrieux is also working to combine TPS and DACA into one conversation. “In Florida we don’t talk about ‘DACA or TPS,’ we talk about ‘DACA-slash-TPS,’” she said.

For now, Larrieux is reviewing her own legal options with an attorney. She remembers the pain of nearly losing her legal status once before, but believes adamantly it won’t happen this time around.

“I’m confident we will win the battle,” she said. “We’re not going to sit down and let Donald Trump destroy our life.”


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