More than 55,000 immigrants are living in California with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) — a form of humanitarian relief for those whose home countries have had some kind of catastrophe. Now, they’re at risk of losing their legal status.
On a rainy Wednesday night at Marin Church of the Nazarene in Novato, Pastor Fritz Toussaint teaches Haitian Creole to children gathered around a table.
There’s a small but vibrant Haitian community in the North Bay, with enough people to support several churches of different denominations.
“There are maybe eight, nine in Marin,” the pastor tells me. “In Novato we have about four.”
The Trump administration is ending a humanitarian program that has allowed 59,000 Haitians to live and work in the United States since an earthquake ravaged their country in 2010.
Temporary Protected Status is a legal designation for people who are unable to safely return to their home country because of armed conflict, natural disaster, or other extraordinary conditions. There are over 300,000 TPS holders from 10 countries now living in the U.S. In the next few months, several more of those countries are due to lose their TPS designation.
Unless the DHS decides otherwise, more than 50,000 Haitians will have to move back to their homeland by July 2019. Haitians in Marin County — yes, there is a small but vibrant Haitian community in Marin — are trying to wrap their heads around what this means.
Many of the more than one thousand Haitians in Marin can trace their roots back to one woman, Elisane Thermidor, who emigrated here 60 years ago. She sponsored relatives who moved here, and they in turn helped other family members come.
Toussaint came to study theology at San Jose Christian College, but his visa expired. He stayed to finish his degree. Eventually Fritz helped found this church in 2003. He was undocumented then, even though his church sponsored his application for a work visa.
“The church applied with immigration but they said the church was too small — they couldn't be an employer,” he explains.
It took a catastrophic event in 2010 to change things for him.
Because of the disaster, undocumented Haitian immigrants already residing in the United States became eligible for what’s called Temporary Protected Status. That’s a special designation for people who are unable to safely return to their home country because of armed conflict, natural disaster, or other extraordinary conditions.
So, Fritz finally became a legal resident again, and was officially employed by the church. And as a pastor, he is beloved by his congregants.
Seventh grader John Samuel Saint Vilcar Toussaint comes to the pastor’s Creole class every week. He goes by Sam, he tells me. He’s not related to the pastor, but shares a last name.
“He's a hard worker and sometimes I feel like I should tell him to take a break as well,” Sam says of his pastor.
Sam was born here, so he’s a citizen. But his mother, Armonise, has Temporary Protected Status. She says her son knows that her immigration status means she might not be able to stay. He wants to help.
“He tell me, I will give you papers — I'm a citizen,” she says sadly. “I tell him no. He said yes, I was born here, I can give you papers. They cannot deport you.”
But with the Trump administration’s decision, Armonise and Pastor Fritz will have to leave the country by July 2019.
How temporary is TPS?
Congress created temporary protected status in 1990, under President George H.W. Bush. To qualify for TPS, an immigrant must be living in the U.S. at the time of a country’s designation with the program. Beneficiaries can get a work permit and provisional protection from deportation, but there’s no path to citizenship.
Many of the countries that have received TPS are granted extensions, and so, people stay longer.
Critics take issue with that, saying TPS has become anything but temporary.
“It becomes a way to come into the United States illegally but permanently,” Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas claimed on “Fox and Friends.”
President Barack Obama’s administration extended Haiti’s designation several times. A memo from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in April recommends the end of the program and states that “Haiti has made significant progress” since the earthquake. But, it also lists the country’s many problems.
Always a struggle
Isnold Toussaint ticks off what he’s experienced in Haiti.
“No food, no clean water, no hospital, no road,” he said.
Isnold is one of Armonise’s younger brothers. He’s a citizen, so he’s traveled back and forth a few times lately.
“It's crazy,” he says, shaking his head. “Killing people, stealing.”
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; almost 60 percent of its population lives in poverty. There’s an ongoing cholera epidemic which has claimed almost 10,000 lives since 2010. Violence is widespread. Hurricane Matthew, which struck in 2016, only made things worse.
Isnold says, back in Haiti, it’s always a struggle. People don’t have jobs.
He and his sister Armonise, like many Haitian expatriates, send money back to support family and friends. Their older brother has down syndrome.
“I left him in 2000,” Armonise says. “I haven’t seen him since that time. That’s really painful.”
She hasn’t seen him in 17 years, because TPS beneficiaries are not allowed to travel internationally without special permission.
The World Bank estimates that in 2016, almost 30 percent of Haiti’s GDP came from people like Armonise living abroad and sending money back. Abruptly losing that flow of remittances could cripple Haiti’s economy.
But the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t evaluate TPS designations based on historic or systemic problems, only what’s strictly linked to temporary events.
That April policy memo also says there’s no evidence that letting Haitians stay temporarily is “contrary to the national interest.”
Even so, the DHS says extending a temporary program is contrary to national interest.
Immigrants fight back
On a sunny day in early November, TPS holders and immigration advocates gather at San Francisco City Hall to try to save TPS.
Adoubou Traore, Program Manager at the African Advocacy Network, stands at the microphone. His organization has helped many Haitian residents in the Bay Area with their TPS applications.
“More than 80 percent of TPS recipients are employed, at a rate that is much higher than of the U.S.-born population, which is 63 percent,” he says to the crowd. “These statistics are quite expressive. Yet the Donald Trump administration has decided to go after our people.”
Of the several dozen people rallying here to save TPS, many are Salvadoran, another community that is very concerned about their temporary status ending. Salvadorans make up the largest number of TPS holders in the United States — approximately 212,000. Of those, about 50,000 live in California. Like Haiti, El Salvador was granted TPS status after a major earthquake.
Vanessa Velasco is a Salvadoran TPS holder. She helped organize this rally and became politically active in the past year.
“We still have some time to see if something can be done,” she says. “If we, you know, let them know that we are here.”
Vanessa came to the U.S. around 2000. When she speaks about her homeland, she describes the same problems the Haitian immigrants talked about: unstable government, violence, poverty, and significant damage from earthquakes.
Her husband, Enrique, also has TPS. He works in construction. Now, they have three children and a home in Brentwood, in Eastern Contra Costa County.
Enrique says it took a lot of effort to make that happen.
“It has been like work work work and I spent, like, what was it, 14 years without a vacation,” he said.
Enrique tells me about his vision for an enclosed outdoor patio. He shows me their fireplace, which he built with bricks left over from a project at work. They’ve now lived here for more than 15 years.
“For us, this is the American dream,” Vanessa tells me. “We have a lot of achievements.”
The achievements Vanessa and Enrique are most proud of are their children They have been saving up to help their eldest, Arianna, pay for her first year of college. But now, they’re not sure whether they’ll be here to support her at all.
“When I start to think about it I start to tear up,” Arianna says to me, quietly. “I really won't be able to see them unless I travel, and with everything, you know, I'm going to be tight economically.”
Children might be left behind
As of right now, there is no clear sense of what will happen to the estimated 273,000 citizen children of TPS holders when their parents have to leave. Enrique says leaving Arianna could end up hurting the U.S.
“You know, they could become a burden for the country instead of what is going on right now, that in reality, we are not getting anything from the government,” Enrique says emphatically.
In fact, TPS holders are contributing a lot to the economy. California stands to lose about $2.4 billion dollars from Salvadoran TPS holders alone if they have to leave, according to the Center for American Progress.
For parents like Armonise, with younger children? It’s a really difficult decision.
“What am I going to do with him?” Armonise asks me. “Because to take him back home, it just like a miserable life. He don't speak my language. We try, but he don't speak my language.”
Armonise’s son, Sam responds to the threat of his mother leaving with poise that makes him seem much older than his 12 years.
“I'm not trying to be sad all the time, or, you know, hard to deal with. I'm just trying to be easy, simple, and calm,” he tells me.
For right now, these people continue to live their lives — to work, to study, to protest, and to pray for a resolution that’s easy, simple, and calm.