Having evaded the issue for almost a full year since taking office, the Obama administration finally relented this week in granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to undocumented Haitian nationals currently in the United States. There wasn’t much of a choice, really, since Tuesday’s devastating earthquake leveled the Haitian capital, leaving tens of thousands dead and millions more displaced in a catastrophe of historic proportions. Days earlier, the administration had announced a decision to suspend deportations of up to 30,000 Haitians with orders to leave the country. But given the magnitude of the disaster, advocates correctly insisted that while a halt to deportations was welcome, nothing less than TPS would do. They finally got their wish on Friday.
TPS is a discretionary procedure authorizing undocumented nationals of a designated country to remain and work legally in the United States for up to 18 months at a time. To qualify, the Department of Homeland Security must determine that the affected nationals are temporarily unable to safely return to their home country due to ongoing conflict, environmental disaster or other extraordinary emergency conditions posing a serious threat to personal safety.
If the measure were fairly applied, advocates say, Haitians long ago should have been designated for beneficiary status; by any relevant standard, Haiti has long been a textbook case for TPS.
For example, following back-to-back hurricanes that swept the country in late 2008, some 800,000 people — including 300,000 children – — were either displaced or otherwise adversely affected. According to one United Nations humanitarian report, Haiti had been “plunged into one of its worst humanitarian situations over the last decade, making it even more dependent on external aid to preserve the already fragile social and political stability.” Yet, when a beleaguered President Rene Preval officially requested of the Bush administration that Haitians in the United States be granted TPS, our then- Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff – acting on behalf of the President of the United States – turned him down. Until now, the Obama administration has been similarly unsympathetic to the plight of the undocumented Haitians. Or so it seemed.
Administrative Amnesty or Humanitarian Response?
One reason the administration may have seemed so reticent on the issue of TPS for Haitians could be the sheer size of the affected population. There are thought to be at least 100,000 undocumented Haitians in the United States; some officials — including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — speculate there could be twice as many. If Napolitano’s estimate is correct, her department has just granted a form of temporary amnesty to an undocumented population equal in size to that of Des Moines, Iowa. That’s four times as many people as there are in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. From a political standpoint, absent a catastrophe of the magnitude witnessed in Haiti this week, that’s not an easy sell.
But the numbers swing both ways. According to the Center for American Progress, Haitians at home received a whopping $1.87 billion in remittances from U.S.-based friends and family in 2008 – an amount equal to nearly one quarter of that country’s gross domestic product. By comparison, the country received a mere $279 million from USAID during the same period. In other words, granting Haitian nationals legal work permits through TPS would increase their opportunities to work and earn wages, thereby yielding even higher rates of remittances back home. Those remittances can go a long way in Haiti toward the reconstruction effort and since they’re sending after-tax dollars, it would be at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer.
Still, there are other political anxieties to be acknowledged and assuaged — among them the question of whether TPS designation comes with an actual expiration date. Technically, the designation is granted for 18 months at a time, with the government reserving the option to renew. But critics of the program complain that once granted, the designation seems impossible to withdraw. As evidence, they point to nationals of Honduras and Nicaragua, who were first granted TPS more than a decade ago. Their status has been periodically renewed ever since and they are currently designated through 2010.
Moreover, from its inception, Temporary Protected Status has been a particular target of the nativist right. The anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), for example, contends that TPS policies are dictated by politics rather than exigent circumstances. Dan Stein, who heads the organization, describes the program as a form of “administrative amnesty to illegal aliens.” Time and again, he says, Temporary Protected Status has proven to be “anything but temporary … repeated abuses have turned [it] into a backdoor immigration program.”
Some may say it’s difficult to take seriously the protestations of an organization like FAIR, whose leadership, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has also warned that certain immigrant groups have engaged in “competitive breeding” aimed at diminishing white power, and argued that aiding starving Africans will only “encourage population growth.” Still, such groups do have a following, and they offer a window if not a platform to the extremist and xenophobic views that all too often infiltrate the public discourse..
We ignore them at our own peril.