Internal Trump administration documents obtained through a lawsuit show that, three weeks before a top federal immigration official wrote a memo recommending the end of so-called Temporary Relief Status for Haitians in America, he had been told by his own staff that the conditions that led to the TPS designation in the first place hadn’t changed.
On November 20, 2017, the Trump administration announced it would end TPS, which allows some 59,000 Haitians to live and work in the United States.
“Haiti has made significant progress in recovering from the 2010 earthquake, and no longer continues to meet the conditions for designation,” wrote USCIS Director Francis Cissna in a Nov. 3 memo for Department of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
But in an October 17 memo, Cissna’s staff at USCIS directly contradicted this rosy picture. “Many of the conditions prompting the original January 2010 TPS designation persist,” the memo noted. (Both memos are embedded at the bottom of this post.)
The October report noted a list of issues still facing Haiti, including “food insecurity, internal displacement, an influx of returnees from the Dominican Republic, the persistence of cholera, and the lingering impact of various natural disasters.”
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“Haiti has also experienced various setbacks that have impeded its recovery, including a cholera epidemic and the impact of Hurricane Matthew,” the report said, adding that this had “severely worsened the pre-existing humanitarian situation.”
“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,’” the memo concluded—another direct contradiction of Cissna’s assertion that the country had “made significant progress.”
The documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit being litigated by the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild and the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic.
“[Cissna] either completely disregarded his own agency’s report or he cherry-picked a few positive developments to justify his recommendation to terminate TPS for Haitians,” Sejal Zota, legal director of the National Immigration Project, told Splinter.
Cissna’s memo is also riddled with oversimplifications of the state of affairs in Haiti.
In one section, he claimed that “Haiti successfully completed its presidential election in February 2017.”
But his agency’s October memo offered a more comprehensive view: “While Haiti succesfully completed its electoral process in February 2017 after two years of contested results and political crises, its new government faces various challenges to promote recovery and reconstruction.”
Cissna, the son of an immigrant who moved to the U.S. from Peru, recently changed USCIS’ mission statement to remove a passage that described the U.S. as “a nation of immigrants.”
He was nominated to lead USCIS by President Trump, who reportedly claimed that Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS,” and that Haiti was a “shithole” country.
Attorneys in the case said the documents contain evidence that the White House did not perform a good-faith review of the conditions in Haiti.
The National Lawyers Guild, along with the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic, sued for the documents after the federal government failed to respond to their FOIA request. So far the Guild has received heavily redacted documents, but they believe the lawsuit will likely produce thousands of more pages of internal documents.
The National Lawyers Guild last month also filed a lawsuit that accused the Trump administration of violating federal procedures and the Fifth Amendment rights of Haitians.
Neither the White House nor USCIS responded to a request for comment. We’ll update this story if we hear from them.
Read both memos below.
Update, 4:49 PM: Cissna sent the following response to Splinter:
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. DHS undertook an extensive outreach campaign to U.S. state and federal government officials, Haitian officials, and third party partners who offered their input as to the conditions on the ground in Haiti. 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.