Newly released internal documents are raising questions about the Trump administration's decision to end protections for tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants -- and whether the argument that the protections were no longer merited was valid.
Under President Donald Trump, the Department of Homeland Security has been aggressive in ending a number of temporary protected status designations that have been on the books, in some cases, for decades.
Roughly 300,000 people who have lived in the US with legal permission, most of whom have been here for upward of 15-20 years, could have their status pulled in the coming months as the protections expire. In the case of Haiti, nearly 60,000 immigrants are set to see their status expire next year.
The justification from the administration for ending the protections has been that by law, when the conditions from the original disaster that triggered the protections have improved, they must expire. DHS has been clear that it does not believe it can look at the totality of conditions in the country to factor in its decision making.
But the documents released Tuesday as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit raise questions about whether DHS was accurately interpreting information in drawing those conclusions.
The documents suggest DHS contradicted its own staff assessment of Haiti when it opted to end TPS for the country, which was put in place after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The documents also include email correspondence showing Haiti's deep concern about ending TPS for the country.
While many of the documents are redacted, the release includes a report prepared by staff about the conditions in Haiti, which was included as part of a recommendation by the director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Director L. Francis Cissna wrote in several instances that conditions in Haiti have improved enough from the 2010 earthquake to lift TPS. But the attached report in many cases paints a much more dire picture than the data points Cissna highlighted. Both documents were sent to then-acting Secretary Elaine Duke and resulted in her decision to end the program with an 18-month wind-down period.
In one example, the staff report stated: "Many of the conditions prompting the original January 2010 TPS designation persist, and the country remains vulnerable to external shocks and internal fragility."
The report closed with the conclusion that given a number of conditions -- including economic difficulties, a cholera epidemic, a housing crisis and food insecurity -- recovery has been severely hampered:
"Due to the conditions outlined in this report, Haiti's recovery from the 2010 earthquake could be characterized as falling into what one non-governmental organization recently described as 'the country's tragic pattern of 'one step forward, two steps back.' '"
Cissna, though, wrote to the secretary: "Haiti has made significant progress in recovering from the 2010 earthquake, and no longer continues to meet the conditions for designation."
The report did note that much of the recovery was exacerbated by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which DHS maintains is not relevant to the earthquake and cannot be factored in.
DHS has made similar decisions about protections for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans, despite the Bush and Obama administrations both extending the renewable TPS designations in most cases.
In response to the documents, Cissna maintained that the government's review concluded that the 2010 conditions that prompted the status no longer exist.
"The decision to terminate TPS for Haiti was made after an inter-agency review process that considered country conditions and the ability of the country to receive returning citizens," Cissna said in a statement, saying the review included an "extensive outreach campaign: for others' input. "Based on all available information, Acting Secretary Elaine Duke determined that the extraordinary and temporary conditions that formed the basis of Haiti's TPS designation as a result of the 2010 earthquake no longer exist, and thus, pursuant to statute, DHS concluded the current TPS designation for Haiti should not be extended."
Separately from the report, email correspondence released as part of the FOIA suit showed that Haitian officials repeatedly reached out to the US government about their concerns over ending TPS, requesting that the program be extended for "at least another 18 months," per Ambassador Paul Altidor. DHS did opt to delay the official end date of TPS for 18 months, but did not formally renew the program.
The documents are the result of a lawsuit brought by the The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, a pro-immigrant group.
"DHS' decision to terminate TPS for Haiti is manifestly contrary to the evidence reflected in this report," project Legal Director Sejal Zota said in a statement.
DHS will make a decision in May about another roughly 80,000 immigrants from Honduras protected by TPS. The agency has been sued by advocacy groups who allege racial motivations for ending Haiti's TPS.