In January of 2010, Rachelle came to the United States with her 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son as they were coping with the aftermath of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti.
“We never planned to come here,” said Rachelle, who currently lives in Philly and whose name has been changed at her request. “It was a bad situation, it was so bad for the children.”
When the family arrived in the U.S. by plane, they were given legal-visitor status through I-94 Arrival/Departure records. After she renewed the I-94s once, Rachelle said, she and the children were given Temporary Protected Status.
TPS, a temporary benefit extended to specific countries through the Department of Homeland Security, protects recipients from deportation. Recipients can also apply to legally work while they’re in the U.S., and may be given travel authorization.
Haiti was officially given TPS designation on Jan. 21, 2010, a few weeks after the earthquake hit.
But last November, former Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke announced that TPS for Haitians would not be extended, saying the conditions from the 2010 earthquake “no longer exist” and pointing out displacement has decreased by 97 percent.
The program will end on July 22, 2019, affecting about 46,000 Haitians here, according to the Pew Research Center. Recipients were advised to make arrangements to leave, or determine if they’re able to adjust their lawful immigration status to stay.
“It’s not really good news for us,” Rachelle said, discussing how the shift in U.S. policy would affect her native land. “I don’t think the country is really ready to receive all the TPS recipients.”
Last week, Haitians and Salvadorans sued the Trump administration over ending TPS. The lawsuit argued that the decision to end the temporary status was racially motivated.
‘You had to sleep outside’
The 2010 Haiti earthquake and aftershocks left an estimated 300,000 people dead or missing, injured 300,000 and left over a million people displaced, according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey, a scientific agency of the U.S. Department of Interior.
“When I was in Haiti after the earthquake, you had to sleep outside because you were so afraid of the aftershocks,” Rachelle said. Three aftershocks following the earthquake were measured at magnitudes of 5.7, 5.9 and 6.0.
Her husband, Samuel, whose name has also been changed for this story, explained the family was afraid their house would collapse. There was also worry about a lack of water, closed schools, looters and being attacked by people while sleeping. Eventually, it became too much for them to handle.
Samuel, who is of Haitian and Venezuelan descent, said he debated taking his family to Venezuela, but the political and economic situation there prevented him from doing so.
“Even I’m not going to Venezuela, it’s so bad,” he said, “My family in Venezuela is getting out [themselves]. They’re going to Panama, Chile, Argentina.”
So while Samuel, a freelance food security analyst, stayed in Haiti to help with aid efforts at a non-government organization, he sent his wife and children to the U.S. Over the past eight years, he’s been able to visit Philadelphia on a visitor’s visa, he said.
Building a new life in Philly
Rachelle ended up in Philadelphia because her sister was here. In Haiti, she’d been an accountant, but she realized she needed to quickly find another job to support her family and move out of her sister’s apartment.
“You have to make a choice,” Rachelle said, “You have to restart.”
She hoped at first to be a French teacher, but realized it wouldn’t be possible after learning how long and how expensive it would be to earn the required degree. Instead, she enrolled in the Northwest Regional Center of the Community College of Philadelphia to brush up on her English and complete the Certified Nursing Assistant training program. After completing the program, she passed the state certification exam, and is now working at a nursing home in the area.
“I can’t complain,” she said, “because the first time I went, I got my license.”
The couple’s two children are now 17 and 19 years old, in high school and community college, respectively, and news of the Haitian TPS designation ending has deeply affected their plans for the future.
“My daughter, I have the impression that she’s very frustrated,” Samuel said, “She’s working better than many children. She has a great GPA.”
The children definitely want to be — and feel like they are — American, he said.
“They went to school here,” Rachelle added. “So when you say they have to leave the country after that to go back somewhere else, it’s a big deal.”
Legal advocates: Change your status ASAP
For TPS recipients from countries losing their designation, trying to get some kind of lawful permanent resident status should be a priority, advocates say.
“Unfortunately, Haitians on TPS currently don’t have a way to get residency through the TPS mechanism,” said Steven Larin, senior director of legal services and immigration policy at Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia.
There are a few different ways to apply for residency, including family-sponsored preferences.
“This is going to end next summer,” Larin noted, “so you need to get some legal advice as to whether you have any other way to get status.”
Advice is available via the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, a group made up of over 50 organizations that help immigrants, migrants and refugees.
”We’re talking about folks who are part of the communities already,” Larin said, “who are our classmates, who are our co-workers.”
Green card or deportation?
Rachelle’s brother, who is a U.S. citizen, submitted a petition in 2011 for her to become a lawful permanent resident, also known as a “green card” holder.
The petition was approved, but the average waiting period for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens to be reviewed for residency is more than 10 years.
“Yeah, so that’s a long process,” said Rachelle, with a sudden sadness in her voice. “A long, long, long process. So we don’t know. We don’t know.”
Each year, 65,000 green cards are issued to siblings, which is the fourth priority of family-sponsored preferences. If Rachelle is approved after a review, she and her dependents would then be able to apply for immigrant visas.
However, the chances of approval happening before TPS ends next July are slim, meaning Rachelle and her children will have to either leave the U.S. or face possible deportation.
“We want to live in peace and work honestly,” Samuel said. “That’s what we used to do — but in Haiti it’s very difficult.”