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Haitian Immigrants Fear End Of Protected Status In U.S.

Nov 3, 2017
Originally published on November 3, 2017 11:58 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, for decades, immigrants to the United States, mostly from Central America, have been granted temporary protective status. This bars them from being returned to home countries at war or devastated by natural disasters. The Trump administration says it plans to end that special status, and it's signaled it would not extend this program for some 50,000 Haitians. NPR's Carrie Kahn met one woman who views this upcoming deadline with dread.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It's midday in Manhattan, and 32-year-old Joana Desir is racing between patients.

JOANA DESIR: This is where I work. Basically, what I do - I'm a nurse. I will give you my card.

KAHN: Desir's a home health care provider. She's already seen three patients this morning and has several more home visits to do before the day's over.

DESIR: It's hard job but rewarding, rewarding.

KAHN: On weekends, she picks up a few extra patients - just for fun, she laughs.

DESIR: Most of immigrants that I know, they have a busy life like me. I leave home, like, 5:45, and sometimes I got home, like, by 9 p.m.

KAHN: Desir came to the U.S. in 2008 to help out her elderly parents, both legal residents. She overstayed her visa and was still in the U.S. when a powerful earthquake struck Haiti in 2010. Given its devastating effects, hundreds of thousands were killed. The Obama administration granted Haitians TPS, temporary protective (ph) status. They were shielded from deportation and given work permits.

Critics say the temporary program for Haiti and for others whose disasters and wars in some countries were decades ago, have become permanent. During her years here, Desir put herself through nursing school, got a job and rose to supervisor. But she hasn't forgotten those back home who, she says, are still hurting.

DESIR: We have that connection in Haitian families that since you succeed, you have to help others. It is a must.

KAHN: She's not alone. It's estimated that all Haitians abroad this year will send home $2 billion. That's nearly equal to Haiti's annual operating budget. Citing improved conditions in Haiti, last May, the Trump administration signaled it would no longer extend the temporary visas. It warned Haitians to prepare to go home in January when the program expires. Desir is devastated. And as the news slowly gets back to Haiti, concern grows, too. Desir has many relatives that depend on her in Haiti - 19 in all.

KAHN: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Bonsoir.

KAHN: Bonsoir.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Bonsoir.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Haitian Creole), Joana.

KAHN: In a hillside neighborhood above downtown Port-au-Prince, Desir's cousin, Daniele Joseph, shows me around her three-room home. Seven people live here - her husband, son and four of her sisters - all Desir's relatives.

DANIELE JOSEPH: (Through interpreter) They are all Joana's cousins. She is. She is. She is.

KAHN: Have they ever met Joana?

JOSEPH: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

KAHN: Joseph says the youngest cousin hasn't, but Desir paid for her recent first communion.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAN SIZZLING)

KAHN: As two of the girls cook tonight's meal - spaghetti with a few onions and chilies - Joseph ticks off everything Desir helps with. After the earthquake, there was money sent to rebuild their home, tuition so Joseph's 2-year-old son can go to school, clothes - the list goes on. Joseph says it will be very difficult if Desir is sent home.

In the same neighborhood, Desir's godmother, Margaret Estefan Altas, paints a much dire prediction without assistance from abroad.

MARGARET ESTEFAN ALTAS: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

KAHN: "I call Joana, and tell her I have a problem. We have no food. And she'll say, I'll do what I can. She always comes through," says Altas.

Her husband, who hasn't worked since the earthquake seven years ago and now has cancer, says it's clear to him the family would starve without Desir's help. She also pays their annual rent, about $1,300. Altas says she helped raise Desir and considers her a daughter.

ALTAS: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

KAHN: But these days, she feels like Desir is more her mother and father. There's one more cousin Desir helps. She pays for his tuition to attend a plumbing school.

Haitian officials have appealed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to extend TPS yet again. Several U.S. lawmakers, including a bipartisan group from South Florida, have introduced legislation that would let the immigrants stay permanently.

But back in New York, Joana Desir says her life is on hold. She can't imagine giving up everything she's built here.

DESIR: I will always be grateful for America. But please, we are professional. We want to stay in that country.

KAHN: And she says she can't imagine going back to Haiti, a country she doesn't recognize anymore - still so poor and, she says, so unsafe.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.