Haiti, Earthquake, University of Miami

Many Haitian immigrants are living in legal limbo

Ten years after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, the University of Miami School of Law’s Health Rights Clinic is helping to preserve immigration protections for Haitians in Miami who face an uncertain future.

Many Haitian immigrants are living in legal limbo

Ten years after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, the University of Miami School of Law’s Health Rights Clinic is helping to preserve immigration protections for Haitians in Miami who face an uncertain future.
by Robert C. Jones Jr.

Stephanie Parrado has never met Franck, a Haitian immigrant who came to Miami by boat a year before the massive earthquake in 2010 that devastated his homeland. But for the past year, the University of Miami law school student has delved into some of the most intimate details of his life as she works tirelessly to keep him from being deported.

Navigating the legal channels of his case has been a test of patience and persistence—and often frustration.

“Franck is homeless,” said Parrado. “So we’ve never been able to meet in person, and for a long time we weren’t even able to find him when we needed him to sign forms. An old case manager tracked him down through a friend of his.”

Parrado is one of a handful of interns in the University of Miami School of Law’s Health Rights Clinic, which, ever since the magnitude 7.0 temblor in Haiti that left hundreds of thousands dead, has been fighting a legal battle to help hundreds of foreign-born nationals from that country obtain temporary protected status (TPS), a special immigration designation that allows individuals from countries that have suffered natural disasters or unrest to live and work legally, but temporarily, in the U.S.

It is a battle that started one early Friday morning in late January 2010, when a small group of law students—supervised by Health Rights Clinic director JoNel Newman, associate director Melissa Swain and a volunteer staff of immigration attorneys—set up a makeshift legal office on the eighth floor of Jackson Medical Towers in the Miami Health District, screening and interviewing dozens of Haitians who had arrived to apply for TPS.

The Obama administration had granted the special immigration status to Haitian immigrants only three days after the quake plunged their island nation into ruins, saying their safety would be at risk if they were deported. To qualify, they had to have been in the U.S. within a year of the quake or been living in America before the disaster.

Tens of thousands of Haitians have applied for and obtained TPS over the past decade, finding jobs, enrolling in schools, marrying U.S. citizens and having children—all the while reapplying for the special status in six - to 18-month intervals.

But when Obama left office, the policy changed for certain immigrant groups.

President Trump, who had campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform, announced in 2017 that the U.S. would end immigration protections in July 2019 for tens of thousands of Haitians living in the United States, saying that conditions in their poverty-stricken country had improved enough since the earthquake for people to return.

Thousands of Haitians who had built lives here suddenly became fearful of a forced return to their homeland, which, despite Trump’s assertions, was still marred in unrest and instability.

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So that’s when Newman, a professor of clinical legal education, and her students took up the mantle again, reviewing hundreds of cases from their 2010 TPS filings to see if they could find other legal avenues to keep their clients from being sent back to Haiti.

“It might have been something we missed or something that changed over the last ten years—a client who married a U.S. citizen, or a client with a U.S. citizen child who has reached the age of 21 and could petition for their parent. We’ve had some success,” said Newman, noting her clinic has succeeded in obtaining better status for a number of clients.

At any one time, her students are working anywhere from 20 to 25 cases.

“It’s not the big numbers, nothing close to the hundreds of cases we took on ten years ago,” said Newman.

But the cases are labor-intensive, often requiring her students to file numerous briefs and appeals in what seems like an endless legal process.

Such as Franck’s case, which Parrado has worked on for the past year. He’s been denied TPS status a number of times, but Parrado continues to plead his case.

“It’s been like a game of volleyball,” she said. “We ask [the courts] to reconsider, they say no but tell us we have 30 days to appeal, then they say no again.”

Then there is the case of Andre, a 60-year-old unskilled laborer who has been unable to get temporary protected status because of a conviction of felony littering on his record—he had been working on a construction job and left debris at a dump site.

“We’ve had him under an order of supervision, which is basically a probation order,” said Newman. “But after Trump came in, they were taking people like him into custody, saying they are criminals and needed to be deported. Every year we renew his order of supervision and file a motion to cancel, which doesn’t go anywhere, but it keeps his case alive. If he’s sent back to Haiti, he would surely perish” because he is in ailing health.

“That’s why it is critical that his stay of removal be renewed so that he can continue to access the life-saving medical care that he receives here in the United States,” said clinic law student Edgar Perez Figueroa, who has been working on Andre’s case since November.

Andre and other clients represented by the Health Rights Clinic are different from other immigration clients because they are fighting serious medical conditions. Most receive care at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center, with which Newman’s clinic has a longstanding attorney-client and referral relationship.

Thirty-six-year-old Mirielle is another of the clinic's clients. She was orphaned as a little girl in Haiti and came to the U.S. in the mid-1980s with her brother. With assistance from the Health Rights Clinic, she obtained temporary protected status in 2010 and has renewed it ever since.

Now, second-year law student Anne Kotlarz is helping Mirielle, who received a heart transplant in 2018, achieve a bigger goal: permanent residency status. Because of her strong ties to the U.S.—she married a U.S. citizen and has a daughter through that bond—Mirielle will most likely obtain it, Kotlarz believes.

Kotlarz has grown close to Mirielle, meeting her husband and daughter and driving her to her doctor appointments.

“We text and talk on the phone a lot,” said Kotlarz. “It’s the kind of relationship I don’t think I would have ever been able to experience in any other extracurricular law school activity.”

With the federal government extending TPS for Haitians and some other immigrants until 2021, Haitian clients of the School of Law’s Health Rights Clinic have breathed a little easier. But they are still up against the brink, said Newman.

“When we did TPS back in 2010, it never occurred to me that within ten short years it could possibly be canceled,” she said. “Haiti has not recovered. Haiti may never recover. To tell a community that’s vulnerable and frightened that you’re going to send them back to a place that doesn’t have resources is unbelievably terrifying and cruel. I’m hoping there’s someone with compassion for impoverished immigrants who are contributing to our society who will re-think this.”