South Florida community leaders Tuesday decried the Trump administration’s decision to return nearly 60,000 Haitians to their quake-ravaged homeland, calling it "heartbreaking" and "shameful" while vowing that their fight has just begun.
"We all know that Haiti is not ready to absorb so many of its children," said Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Sant La, the Haitian Neighborhood Center in Miami. "This is a sad day, a very shameful day, a depressing day especially on a Thanksgiving eve where a nation of immigrants would be rebuking immigrants."
The outrage spread to Palm Beach, too. Hundreds of Florida hospitality workers came by the busload from across the state to protest at President Donald Trump’s private beach club, Mar-a-Lago, where he arrived Tuesday for the Thanksgiving holiday. The union workers from Unite Here waved flags and marched in the searing sun on a bridge overlooking the resort, chanting "Shut it down."
Their message to the president: If you deport us, many of the resorts, theme parks and hotels, like yours, won’t be able to operate.
"I have six children. My mom and dad were killed in the earthquake. My country is nothing now," said Marie Partait, who immigrated from Haiti 15 years ago.
A $9-an-hour dishwasher at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Partait has been living in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status, or TPS — the immigration status that protected her from deportation and that the Trump administration announced Monday will end on July 22, 2019. If Haitians choose to stay after that, they would face possible detention and deportation.
The decision by Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Elaine Duke came two weeks after she also ended the status for 2,500 Nicaraguans. She put on hold a similar decision for 57,000 Hondurans, triggering an automatic six-month extension.
But it was the decision about Haiti that incensed South Florida members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
"This announcement will just give us more fight power," U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat who represents one of the largest constituents of Haitian-American voters in the United States, said during a Tuesday morning news conference in front of the Miami-Dade School Board. "We will continue to advocate."
Supporters of TPS in Congress have introduced at least three bills in Congress, including the bipartisan Extending Status Protection for Eligible Refugees with Established Residency Act, or ESPERER, which spells hope in French. With Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo as the chief sponsor, it would provide a path to permanent residency and American citizenship for immigrants currently living in the U.S. under TPS.
Wilson, who is a co-sponsor of Curbelo’s bill and another TPS-related bill by New York Democratic Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, said she plans to file her own legislation in the coming days. Her bill, she said, will be exclusively focused on the estimated 59,000 Haitians with TPS who meet certain requirements to adjust their status to legal permanent resident within three years of the bill’s passage.
Similar to TPS’ current provisions, the Wilson proposal will allow Haitians to legally live and work in the U.S. while their immigration application is being processed. Her office was still working on the wording of the bill Tuesday.
"It’s the only solution we can come up with to make sure that these people are not deported back to Haiti," she said.
Immigration attorney Ira Kurzban said he’s preparing a lawsuit against DHS, which determined that the "extraordinary but temporary conditions caused by the 2010 earthquake . no longer exist." The Obama administration granted TPS for Haitians after the quake.
"The conditions are now 10 times worse. We’ve had the cholera epidemic. You had two hurricanes," said Kurzban, arguing that DHS failed to follow the law in determining why Haiti’s TPS should not be extended, basing its decision on ideology rather than facts. "They didn’t consider all of the factors they were supposed to consider."
Kurzban noted that prior to extending Haitians’ TPS designation for only six months in May, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the TPS program, had made inquiries into the Haitian community’s criminal history.
"We think it’s . part of the long pattern of discrimination and racism against Haitians," he said.
But whether by lawsuit or law, many Haitian TPS holders Tuesday continued to hold out hope that Monday’s decision to cancel the protection in 18 months would be reversed.
"Maybe it’s just the beginning for Congress to work harder with DHS to fulfill our dream," Yolnick Jeune, 45, a TPS holder said during a news conference at Haitian Women of Miami on Tuesday afternoon. "Our dream is not to go back in a country that is not in a stable condition."
Another TPS recipient, Ronyde Ponthieux, urged Trump to think about how the decision impacts families that have invested in the country. He was joined by his 10-year-old daughter Christina, a youth leader with Haitian Women of Miami, a group that also denounced the decision.
"I have a home here. I have a house here, but I don’t have anything in Haiti," Ponthieux said. "We all know Haiti is not ready to receive those people."
His daughter asked the president to consider the 27,000 U.S.-born children of Haitian TPS-holders and others with TPS - particularly as the holiday season approaches.
"Before you go to sleep at night, think about what you’re doing," she said, wearing a hall monitor sash and school uniform. "What am I going to give thanks about on Thanksgiving Day?"
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who organized the Tuesday morning news conference in Miami with the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary of Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church in Little Haiti, said the decision will divide mothers from sons, fathers from daughters.
"I cannot be a superintendent of schools. I cannot be a father, I cannot be an immigrant, citizen of this nation if I did not stand with the 12,000 K-12 children impacted by TPS and the 5,700 adult learners currently enrolled in our school system equally impacted by TPS," Carvalho said. "This is a matter of decency. This is a matter of common sense. This is matter of respect. This is a matter of compassion for those in greatest need."
DHS has said only Congress can - and should - provide a permanent fix.
Curbelo, touting his legislation as a solution that could be much better than the TPS program for Haitians, Hondurans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans, said he is united with other members of the South Florida congressional delegation on the issue.
"Today, while we (have) heavy hearts, we still have hope and we will continue working together until this gets down because we are a welcoming community, a community that appreciates immigrants," he said. "This is only a tragedy if Congress fails to act."