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Immigration Law

Jeffrey S. Chase on Haiti, TPS and Racial Bias

Jeffrey S. Chase, Jan. 7, 2019 - "This morning, the trial began in Saget v. Trump, before District Judge William Kuntz in the Eastern District of New York.  As your Brooklyn observer, I attended the opening hours of what is likely to be a two or three day trial.

The basis for the case is the Trump administration’s termination of Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”) for Haitians who have been present in the U.S. since January 12, 2011, and remain unable to return due to conditions in that country following a massive earthquake in 2010, a 2016 hurricane, and a major cholera epidemic.  59,000 Haitians in the U.S. are presently in TPS status, a number too large for the Haitian government to presently absorb if returned en masse.

TPS is not asylum, and offers no permanent status in this country.  It was created by Congress in 1990 to afford blanket protection to nationals of countries to which return is currently untenable for a variety of reasons, including armed conflict, natural disaster, rampant disease, or the inability of the country to absorb the mass repatriation of its nationals.  Such designation is granted in intervals of 6 to 18 months, and is reviewed by the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) at least 60 days before the end of each designated period. The law only allows TPS status to be terminated where such review finds that the conditions for designation no longer exist in the country; otherwise, the period of TPS is to be extended.  In the case of Haiti, after being designated for TPS in early 2010, such designation was extended in 18-month increments continually until the coming of the Trump Administration in 2017.

DHS, within its subcomponent, USCIS, has a Country Conditions Unit.  I know that unit’s director, LeRoy Potts, and met with him and some of his senior staff when I oversaw EOIR’s country conditions database during my time at the BIA.  They are knowledgeable, fair-minded, and in my experience, issued accurate reports free of political influence. The Country Conditions Unit is generally consulted in TPS decisions.  As it had in the past, the Unit again drafted a report finding serious problems in Haiti that would call for an extension of TPS.

However, as the Plaintiffs’ counsel noted in his opening statement, Robert T. Law, previously director of the vehemently anti-immigration lobby group ironically known by the acronym FAIR, who under the Trump administration was made a senior policy advisor to USCIS (which is mind-boggling on its own), decided that the Country Condition Unit’s memo was “overwhelmingly weighted for extension which I do not think is the conclusion we are looking for.”  According to petitioner’s counsel, Law edited the document (with the blessing of the USCIS chief policy strategist, Kathy Nuebel Kovarik) in 35 minutes, without further research.   According to the opening statement, the only research requested by the administration was for evidence that Haitians in the U.S. had criminal records or received public assistance, a clear attempt to discredit a nationality using racial stereotypes.  Plaintiff’s counsel stated that the USCIS Country Conditions Unit characterized DHS’s final version of the report used to justify its termination of TPS for Haiti as “complete fiction.”

The Plaintiffs called as their first witness Ellie Happel, an expert on country conditions in Haiti and resident of that country from 2011 to 2017, who took apart the DHS memo sentence by sentence.  For example, Happel explained the meaninglessness of DHS’s claim that 98 percent of internal displacement camps (“IDPs”) in Haiti have been closed. Happel stated that the majority who left the camps did so due to actual or threatened forced eviction, and many did not return to durable housing.  When one settlement, Canaan, was decertified as an IDP camp, it statistically eliminated 50,000 people from the list of those internally displaced. However, those 50,000 people continue to live on the site of the former camp, a windswept, previously uninhabited land far from government services.

Happel cited a report (also referenced in the USCIS report) that a minimum of 500,000 homes would have to be constructed to meet the housing needs of the Haitian population.  Happel also testified in convincing detail to continued food insecurity, political instability, an economy marred by a 2 billion dollar debt to Venezuela caused by misappropriation or embezzlement of funds by government officials, and a continued susceptibility to cholera following one of the worst epidemics of the disease in recent history.

Why would DHS’s leadership go to such lengths to fabricate a fictitious report to justify returning 59,000 Haitians to such conditions before it was advisable to do so?  The plaintiffs pointed to the answer in the statements of President Trump himself, made a few months earlier to members of Congress, in which he referenced predominantly black nations as “shithole countries” (the presiding judge insisted on the use of the unedited quote), questioned “why do we need more Haitians? (whom he previously claimed “all have AIDS”); and stated his preference for immigrants from places such as Norway.  The government’s attorney somehow managed to keep a straight face when claiming in response that DHS’s acting Secretary had reached the decision to terminate independent of Trump’s opinions.

Sadly, Haitians have suffered a long history of unfair treatment under our country’s immigration laws.  In his excellent 1998 law review article “Race, the Immigration Laws, and Domestic Race Relations: A ‘Magic Mirror’ Into the Heart of Darkness,” Prof. Kevin R. Johnson wrote “No U.S. policy approached...the government’s extraordinary treatment of Black persons fleeing the political violence in Haiti.”  When the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1993 decision in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, Inc., upheld the policy initiated by President George H.W. Bush, and surprisingly continued under President Clinton, of repatriating intercepted Haitians without first screening the returnees to see if they qualified for refugee status, Justice Brennan argued in dissent that the Haitian refugees “demand only that the United States, land of refugees and guardian of freedom, cease forcibly driving them back to detention, abuse, and death. We should not close our ears to it.”

Sadly, 25 years later, our nation’s most openly racist president continues to advocate for policies of extraordinary cruelty towards Haitians.  And seemingly without embarrassment, many of his underlings are happy to go to extreme lengths to carry out such policies, the admirable exception being the USCIS Country Conditions Unit.

It was heartwarming to see the large team of lawyers, paralegals, and expert witnesses united  in Judge Kuntz’s courtroom to continue to fight against such cruelty. Among those in attendance were Ira Kurzban, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, and Michael Posner, founder and former director of Human Rights First, both of whom were early defenders of Haitian rights in the 1980s.  To see them working alongside a younger generation of attorneys and experts, such as Happel, the director of NYU Law School’s Haiti Project, and Florida attorney Kevin Gregg reminded this aging attorney that the struggle for immigrants’ rights will be passed on to most capable hearts and hands."

Copyright 2019 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.

Jeffrey S. Chase is an immigration lawyer in New York City. Jeffrey is a former Immigration Judge, senior legal advisor at the Board of Immigration Appeals, and volunteer staff attorney at Human Rights First. He is a past recipient of AILA's annual Pro Bono Award, and previously chaired AILA's Asylum Reform Task Force.