The U.S. Homeland Security chief was travelling to Haiti on Wednesday for a brief visit less than two weeks after the Trump administration suggested that 58,000 Haitians in the U.S. should get ready to return home.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was to meet privately with President Jovenel Moise and other officials on the grounds that used to house Haiti's domed National Palace before it pancaked in a devastating 2010 earthquake. A U.S. statement says they'll discuss "issues related to repatriation,'' among other topics.
Washington recently extended until January a temporary humanitarian program that has allowed tens of thousands of Haitians to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation since the 2010 quake.
U.S. officials say conditions in Haiti have significantly improved since the quake. But advocates for Haitians say conditions have not improved nearly enough for Haitians to be deported, and the Caribbean country's government had been seeking another 18-month extension for its nationals in the "temporary protected status'' program.
A final decision is expected later this year, but a recent Homeland Security statement suggested that Haitian immigrants should start getting their affairs in order, including acquiring travel documents.
Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert who is an international affairs professor at George Washington University, said he believed that Moise had very little space to maneuver on the protected status issue, especially as post-earthquake funding from a variety of sources has diminished.
"If Moise pushes back on the deportation of Haitians, he may not be considered a friend of the U.S. and therefore put development assistance in jeopardy,'' he said.
But Maguire added that failing to be seen publicly pushing back on mass deportations -- a sensitive topic in Haiti --"is bound to make his already weak young presidency appear even weaker.''
A number of humanitarian and development organizations working in Haiti called this week for Kelly to see Haiti's vulnerability firsthand, including the vast unregulated sprawl just outside Port-au-Prince where at least 250,000 people have settled since the quake devastated much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas.
A group of U.S. lawmakers who oppose deportations of the Haitians also called for Kelly to join them on a future tour of the struggling southwest region slammed by last year's Hurricane Matthew and hit hard by flooding from torrential spring rains.
Kelly was only expected to visit Haiti's capital for a few hours before heading back to the U.S.
"I sincerely doubt that such a cursory trip will provide Secretary Kelly with enough substantive knowledge to truly understand the conditions on the ground and properly inform his decision on whether to extend Temporary Protected Status in six months,'' said Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Democrat from New York.
Another U.S. congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson, described Kelly's visit as a "positive signal.'' But she also doubted he would get much in the way of information "to fairly and accurately assess the destruction and despair'' from the quake, an ongoing cholera epidemic and last year's hurricane.
While Haiti did make advances spurred by international aid since the quake, it remains one of the poorest and most unequal countries in the world.
There's growing worry that if nearly 60,000 Haitians are deported, the loss of remittances from the U.S. that sustain vulnerable families will cause suffering.
"If all those people come back to Haiti there won't be any work for them and no money getting sent here. This place is struggling,'' said Napheline Dor, who is still living beneath tarp in the southwest city of Les Cayes some eight months after Matthew peeled off her shack's metal roof.