Rony and Ronyde Ponthieux in Miami, FL. © 2018 Human Rights Watch

(Miami) – US law should be changed to offer a path to permanent legal status for people who have lived in this country for many years with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Human Rights Watch said today. Hundreds of thousands of people have built lives in the United States while living here legally under that program.

In March 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed Haitian families in Miami whose lives, built in the US, hang in the balance as they risk losing their protected status. In December 2017, Human Rights Watch documented the harm caused by deporting authorized and unauthorized immigrants without adequate consideration of their rights to home and family.

“The average Haitian TPS holder has been in the US for 13 years, and the average Salvadoran for 21 years,” said Clara Long, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch, citing figures calculated by Center for Migration Studies. “Congress should not leave them at the mercy of a broken immigration system that pays little heed to the family and community ties they have built in the US.”

In 2017, the Trump administration said that it would not renew TPS protections for citizens of Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador after granting them a final 18-month extension. Nearly 1,000 Sudanese, 5,000 Nicaraguans, 60,000 Haitians, and 260,000 Salvadorans are scheduled to lose TPS by September 2019. The government will decide by May 2018 whether 86,000 Hondurans will be able to renew their status.

International human rights law requires a fair, individualized hearing for anyone facing deportation. The law should also weigh a person’s ties to US families and communities against the government’s interest in deporting the person. A humane and rational system should not wait until the point of deportation to consider these issues, Human Rights Watch said. Instead, Congress should create a fair and inclusive legalization program that accords due weight to immigrants’ ties to the US.

Human Rights Watch has long called on the US government to respect and protect families in its immigration policies, protect immigrants from workplace violations and crimes, provide a legalization process that effectively protects the basic rights of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants, and focus enforcement efforts on genuine threats and protect due process rights for all.

Haitian families told Human Rights Watch about their lives in the US and their concerns about their future:

  • Rony Ponthieux, 49, has been in the US since 1999 and obtained Temporary Protected Status in 2010. He became a registered nurse in 2013, taking care of patients with respiratory problems like pneumonia and tuberculosis at the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. If he loses TPS next year, he said, he doesn’t know what he will do about his 10-year-old US citizen daughter, Ronyde Ponthieux. “Who is going to take care of me if I stay here?” Ronyde said. “And if we go to Haiti it’s going to be really hard for my parents. I don’t speak French and if I want to go to American school that will cost a lot of money.”
  • “Erick F.,” 47, came to the US nearly 10 years ago. He has been driving for Uber because, he said, employers are leery of hiring people with temporary status. He previously had a job with a major US delivery company. “We can’t make any plans,” he said. “We don’t know how we would go to Haiti because my family lost everything in the earthquake.” Erick’s 6-year-old US citizen daughter doesn’t speak French or Creole, he said. “When you are living in a country for so many years this place becomes your country. We followed the law. We followed the rules. We didn’t expect that the government was going to say, ‘you have to go.’”
  • “Leomar P.” has been in the US for 12 years and has two US-born children. He said he bought a house after working as a dishwasher in the Miami area for years, but if he were deported he would have to leave all of that behind. “I pay taxes; I pay bills,” he said. “If I’m deported I’m going to be deported without anything.
  • “Danielle J.” has photos of two children in the back of her cell phone case: her daughter and the little boy with autism she takes care of as a home health aide. “I’ve been with the family for three years,” she said. “He’s my baby. His mom says I need you to be with him, how can they deport you?” Danielle’s 4-year-old US citizen daughter has asthma, she said, and she worries that if she is sent back to Haiti she wouldn’t be able to get the medicine her daughter needs.

These concerns are reflective of broad anxiety in the Haitian community, said Marleine Bastien, director of the Miami-based Family Action Network Movement. “It’s really a tragedy if these people are deported.”

The Family Action Network Movement was among the plaintiffs in a suit filed this month seeking to reverse the Trump administration’s decision not to renew TPS for Haitians. As a result of the fears now plaguing South Florida’s Haitian community, the suit alleges, the group has also seen an increase in the number of child referrals to its mental health program for treatment of anxiety and situational depression.

Last month, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund alleged in a federal lawsuit that the government’s decision on TPS was “irrational and discriminatory” and influenced by President Donald Trump’s “public hostility toward immigrants of color.”

Congress should urgently get to work on ensuring that long-term deeply settled immigrants, including TPS recipients, can continue giving back to their communities, contributing the US economy and supporting their families.

Clara Long

US Program Senior Researcher

Another lawsuit filed in California on behalf of the US citizen children of TPS holders says that the government’s cancellation of protected status for long-term residents from Haiti and El Salvador “violates the constitutional rights of school-age United States citizen children of TPS holders, by presenting them with an impossible choice: they must either leave their country or live without their parents.”

“Congress should urgently get to work on ensuring that long-term deeply settled immigrants, including TPS recipients, can continue giving back to their communities, contributing the US economy and supporting their families,” Long said. “Putting hundreds of thousands more deeply rooted immigrants under the constant threat of deportation is a recipe for rights abuse.”