As Haitians arrive in the US, they face challenges new and old to immigrants. With the increase, service organizations are often overwhelmed trying to help the new arrivals secure work permits, find housing and assist with asylum legal battles. All in an environment that’s becoming more overtly unfriendly to Haitians, as shown by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ migrant “hunting.”
Over the summer, as immigration political rhetoric increased in volume, Pastor Dieufort “Kiki” Fleurissaint found himself welcoming to Boston groups of Haitian families and sole travelers to the sanctuary city. Months later, he is still trying to find homes for dozens of them and some others who went to local hospitals for sanctuary.
“When the families go to Children’s Hospital to seek medical care for their children, they also bring their luggage with them,” Fleurissaint said.
Haitians commonly choose to go to Boston because of a provision called “Haitian Entrants” that provides access to food stamps, cash assistance and health insurance.
“The influx of Haitian migrants has not stopped and we have not seen any information on the cable news, but the crisis still continues,” Fleurissaint said. “We have families comprising of four, five, even six, even seven arriving in Boston, Massachusetts.”
Boston, Florida and New York have all received federal dollars to help new immigrants settle into the community. Even with funding, housing and legal assistance are hard to obtain and fall on the backs of organizations. Advocates nationwide have pushed for DHS to increase their capacity because of the backlog at DHS putting a stall on work permits.
Immigrant Family Services Institute (IFSI-USA) is a community center located in Mattapan, a neighborhood in Boston comprising nearly 46% Haitian descent. Fleurissaint said the organization has seen an increase of intakes over the summer with 629 people in June, 704 people in July and predicts August will bring another 600 to 700 people.
“As an organization we have had to be strategic in contacting Haitian brokers and landlords to see if they would allow us to place those families into the apartments,” Fleurissaint said.
Fleurissaint placed 60 out of the 106 families who showed up to Boston Medical Center needing housing. Currently, a family of six and a 26-year-old named Williams stay on mattresses in Fleurissaint’s office. While Boston assists with rent for three months, Fleurissaint fears what could come after.
While people with humanitarian parole are eligible for work permits, there is a backlog and a need for paralegals to assist with documentation.
“This is a nightmare in terms of having those documents issued, it takes six months or more,” Fleurissaint said.
Asylum denials common, legal support insufficient
Haitians who immigrated to the United States after July 29, 2021 miss the cut off for TPS, and are applicants for asylum. Advocates suggest applying for both. Ronald Surin, an immigration attorney based in Fort Lauderdale, said he represents more than 100 Haitians who have crossed the Mexico border into the U.S.
“It’s like a little dark secret,” Surin said. “People don’t know what’s going on, once those people cross the border they think they’re all good except that they have to go to the process and not being able to work, not being able to find a place to stay except accommodation from a friend or family relatives,”
Two legal complications Surin frequently faces are people who haven’t resided in Haiti for years and others who are permanent residents in countries such as Chile and Brazil. While the need for legal representation is dire, many people don’t have access to it.
“The main thing is for those people to have legal counsel, because they can tell the story, but they may miss the most important ingredient that just connects the problem to one of the categories for asylum,” Surin said.
One woman he represents owned a small business in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. One day, several men dressed in police uniforms came in and demanded money. She gave them $25,000 of what she had. They then asked for more money, raped her, kidnapped her child and asked for $100,000 for his release.
The woman wasn’t able to come up with the money. Days later, she got a call to pick up her son from a trash pile where they had dumped his body.
“She lost her son, she was beaten and raped, but when [the court] asked why did this happen to you she said, ‘I don’t know, I think they wanted my money,’” Surin said. “The judge was being tough and harsh, and said ‘well I sympathize, but I cannot give you relief’ whereas you know it was a good case even under discretionary grounds,”
People who ask for asylum are put in immigration prison and charged a fee sometimes up to $50,000 in order for them to be released, Jozef said.
“The few people in immigration detention we are able to get in contact with are the only ones they’re able to fight 24 hours a day to get them representation and hopefully get them released,” Jozef said.
After the crisis in Del Rio, The Haitian Bridge Alliance filed a lawsuit against the U.S. and the administration asked for dismissal. They aren’t giving up.
“We are pushing forward to make sure we hold all people who were involved accountable in representing not only the 11 plaintiffs, but the entire group of 14,000-plus people who were subjected to abuse in Del Rio,” Jozef said.
Advocates, including Petit and Jozef, called on the U.S. to investigate the treatment of Black migrants after Del Rio, but the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s internal investigation findings did not match up with the stories Petit and Jozef heard at the border. While the investigation concluded that there was “unnecessary force” and verbal abuse they found no evidence the migrants were struck by reins. However, investigators did not interview the Haitians impacted or consider the squalid conditions of the camp.
Also, responsibility has not been taken for the “challenge coin” depicting the viral image of a Haitian migrant being chased by an agent on horseback that circulated among border patrol officers that circulated eBay.
Surin said asylum cases are granted in Florida at around 10-15%, but for Haitians it’s about 5%. The Associated Press reported that from Oct. 2018 through June 2021, Haitians were granted asylum at the lowest rate amongst 83 nationalities where asylum decision data is available.
“It varies by judge,” Surin said, “Unfortunately it should not be based like that it is not the law, but if you could look at the background of the judge, what administration appointed him or her, it gives you an indication what kind of judge you’re facing,”
With Haiti on lockdown, Surin said his clients still need to communicate with people back home to send them documentation to support their claim for asylum.
“It’s a tall order most people cannot eat, just really almost impossible,” Surin said.
Places that offer free legal assistance such as Catholic Charities get overwhelmed so many seek out private counsel. Without a work permit, it can be difficult for clients to pay for council.
“I never drop a client for not being able to pay me because I understand the problem but it is a struggle and a challenge,” Surin said. “They cannot work but have to pay for legal services and then the court will say I will reset your case to come back next time with a lawyer.”
Tricks, misinformation common as Texas and Florida expel immigrants
In Florida, organizers say having family members to stay with is paramount because there aren’t housing options for newcomers. In addition to housing struggles, Desantis has deputized police officers to become ICE officers, appropriated $12 million to transport immigrants from Florida into other states and intentionally not renewing the licenses of unaccompanied minor shelters in Florida.
Tessa Petit, the executive director of The Florida Immigrant Coalition, was preparing for a press conference condemning Desantis’ role in sending migrants to Martha’s vineyard when it struck her that just a year before she was reading an executive order by Desantis asking to “profile illegal aliens” following Del Rio.
“We’re still being profiled, we’re still being harassed and chased. And I suddenly felt tired because it felt like it never ends,” said Petit, an immigrant advocate since 2001.
Petit understands the fear immigrants in Florida can feel about speaking out in the media about their stories and she’d do the same if she were undocumented.
“In the state of Florida when you realize all the efforts [Desantis] is putting towards targeting or hunting immigrants, it’s self preservation – you’re going to be careful,” she said.
Dotie Joseph, Florida State Representative for District 108, also felt a correlation between Del Rio and Desantis’ effort to send migrants to Martha’s vineyard. In Del Rio, Haitians followed a rumor that they would be accepted if they presented themselves at the right coordination along the border which Joseph said felt “eerily similar” to what happened at Martha’s vineyard.
“People are playing political games with these migrants,” Joseph said. “Immigrants are the scapegoat of choice. And they like targeting Haitian immigrants or any Black and brown immigrants, because it’s easy prey. People have a different response when they’re blond haired, blue eyed Ukrainians.”
Bussing exacerbates housing issue
New York City is one of the few places that are required to provide shelter on any given night. In June, Mayor Eric Adams gave $1.6 million to organizations helping Haitians who recently arrived in the city, bringing New York City’s Haitian Response Initiative to $3.15 million. But the money is not enough.
Like other states, New York immigrant organizations carry the weight of providing legal representation, translation and navigating children through the education system. But the distribution of these funds often takes time to make it into the hands of the organizations.
“We call on the Biden White House and the state to also acknowledge that New York City has become a magnet for those who are seeking to leave traumatic or difficult situations in their homelands,” Adams told The Haitian Times in an Aug. 26 interview. “So we’re gonna do our part, we also need the assistance from the state and federal government.”
Since then, Adams has announced the city would open “relief centers” to provide temporary housing for about 500 asylum seekers — a plan that drew criticism from some immigration advocates and politicians.
Some in the City Council have suggested making use of Manhattan’s “large-scale hotels” that are currently closed which would in turn offer opportunities for hotel workers to return to work.
In early October, Adams also declared a state of emergency in the city’s shelter system from thousands of migrants being bussed from the southern border.
“Every day, the total number gets higher. Every day, from this point forward, we are setting a new record,” Adams press release said.