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White House May Alter Haitian Immigrant Policy

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White House May Alter Haitian Immigrant Policy

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White House May Alter Haitian Immigrant Policy

White House May Alter Haitian Immigrant Policy

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A week after allowing Cuban-Americans more freedom to return to their native country, there are signs the Obama administration may soon change U.S. policy for Haitian immigrants. Immigration activists say they're hopeful the administration will act soon to at least temporarily stop deporting Haitians to their devastated home country.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now that the Obama administration has said it will allow Cuban Americans to visit Cuba freely, there are signs the administration may soon change U.S. policy toward illegal immigrants from Haiti. The Haitian community here says it's hopeful there will be at least a temporary stop in deportations. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: Among Haitians in south Florida, it's just called TPS. That's short for temporary protected status, a designation that halts deportations. It's been granted to immigrants from many nations in the past, including Hondurans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans, after natural disasters in their countries.

Haitian Americans and immigrant rights groups have fought for five years to have it extended to Haitians. That effort gained new urgency last fall after four hurricanes and tropical storms battered Haiti, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and wiping out most of the nation's food crops.

Marlene Bastien of Haitian Women of Miami says seven months later, the island nation is still reeling.

Ms. MARLENE BASTIEN (Haitian Women of Miami): As we speak today, we have villages that are starving. We have children who are dying - basically dying of hunger. And we have diseases, you know, are spreading, are rampant in some areas.

ALLEN: When Barack Obama took office in January, Haitian American and immigrant rights groups immediately began pressing the new administration to change the policy on deportations. The first sign that things had changed came in early February, when at the last minute, a Haitian woman had her deportation delayed.

Fialene(ph) Jean Paul had been in the U.S. for 17 years and was being forced to decide whether to leave behind her 7-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen, or take the girl back to the storm-ravaged country. Shortly afterward, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department said they were reviewing Haitian immigration policy.

In a recent interview with the Miami Herald, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the review would not change the policy of intercepting and returning Haitian migrants trying to reach the U.S. by sea. But she suggested that the Obama administration is not interested in deporting Haitians who are working in the U.S., and who are sending money back to their home country.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): We know what a great source of income the remittances are that flow from, not just the United States, but principally the United States, back to Haiti. And we also know what a tremendous burden it would be on Haiti if all of a sudden, they were forced to accommodate thousands of people who were otherwise working in our country.

ALLEN: Privately, those familiar with the situation say they've already seen a change in how Haitians are being handled by federal immigration authorities. As an example, they say that more Haitians who are charged with immigration violations are being released than they've seen in years.

Cheryl Little, with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, has discussed the policy review with top Obama officials and calls herself very encouraged. There are currently more than 30,000 Haitians facing deportation. In immigration terms, those aren't big numbers, but giving them temporary protected status, Little says, would make a big differences.

Ms. CHERYL LITTLE (Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center): Those Haitians would be able to get work permits, reside here legally in a temporary basis, move on with their lives. I mean, right now, Haitians in our community are deathly afraid that they're going to be sent back. You could face homelessness. You'll have nothing to eat. And in the worst-case scenario, I think your life - your very life could be at risk.

ALLEN: To advocate for a change in the policy, Haitian American groups are planning to bring busloads of activists to Washington next month. Haitian Women of Miami leader Marlene Bastien says if there's a positive change in U.S. policy before that, instead of protesting, she'll be dancing in the streets.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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