Why is disinformation obstructing a new U.S. parole program for Haitian migrants?
Last week, more than 100 Haitian migrants arrived in the Florida Keys after a dangerous sea voyage. The Biden administration hopes to discourage those journeys with a new parole program it announced last month for migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua — and Haiti.
That new policy is popular inside Haiti, where people are lining up daily to apply for passports to be eligible for the parole. But many Haitian community leaders here in South Florida often find themselves struggling to convince the diaspora that it's a financially and legally risk-free alternative for helping desperate people leave their violence-torn country.
One of the biggest obstacles they face: disinformation.
Few if anyone disputes right now that Haiti is overrun by gang violence, which too often erupts in deadly firefights in the capital, Port-au-Prince, or in criminal rampages through neighborhoods. Many gangs are more powerful than the police — which is why so many Haitians want to escape the country.
“There’s really no other option," says Sandra Fish Mathurin, director of services at the nonprofit Florida Immigrant Coalition in Miami.
"It’s more of a life-and-death situation, because sometimes [the gangs] just come for you to kidnap you and kill you.”
Fish Mathurin was raised in Haiti and still has a house there. The woman who takes care of it (WLRN is not naming her to protect her safety) lives in a neighborhood taken over by gangs — who threaten and try to recruit her son and daughter. Not surprisingly, she wants to get them out of Haiti — and that’s where Fish Mathurin comes in.
“I grew up with her," she says. "She’s like a mom to me. And this is my giving back.”
By that Fish Maturin means sponsoring the woman's children to come to the U.S. under the Biden administration’s new humanitarian parole program. It lets up to 30,000 migrants per month from those four crisis-torn countries to come to the U.S. for two years — and work — if they stay at home to apply for it, and if they have a sponsor here who can support them. (Migrants from those countries who show up at the U.S.'s doorstep illegally are now automatically expelled.)
A migrant sponsor does not have to be a relative. It can be just about anyone: a family friend or a small business. But Fish Maturin feels more people would come forward if they knew how simple it is to be a sponsor — and if so many folks in the community weren't casting unfounded doubts on that.
“It’s an easy process, easy to upload your [sponsor] documentation," she says.
"But it is unfortunate that there is a lot of misinformation, because it’s hurting the Haitians.”
That misinformation — or disinformation — includes claims that sponsors need to pay lawyers and notaries steep fees to apply. (Not true.) Or warnings that if migrants here on parole commit a crime, their sponsors will lose their own immigration status. (Again, not true.)
Those falsehoods have become so rampant that Haitian-American immigration attorneys like Frandley Julien of Miami have had to post videos to correct them.
Julien says he’s been most busy monitoring, and confronting, Creole-language media and social media chatter about the parole sponsorship application form, known as the I-134A.
“For reasons I cannot understand, we have people on platforms like Haitian radio disseminating all kind of nonsense about the sponsors’ legal responsibilities,” says Julien, adding he recently had to get himself invited on one show to debunk its inaccuracies.
READ MORE: Biden's migrant parole program is popular in Haiti. But it seems a harder sell among Haitians here
Julien acknowledges some of the program’s rules can be confusing. For example, unaccompanied minors are not eligible for the parole — but many Haitians expats who might want to sponsor them, go to Haiti and lawfully bring those children to the U.S. are living here under their own uncertain immigration circumstances, such as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. If they were to go to Haiti to get the kids, they might not be able to come back.
One of Julien’s recent cases involved a 16-year-old migrant girl whose mother is here seeking asylum. So Julien came up with a workaround: he had the mother’s husband — who is a U.S. citizen — become the sponsor and travel to Haiti to get the girl instead. Even that was a gamble, because Haitian or U.S. authorities might not have released her to him, since he's not her biological father.
“We were extremely apprehensive," Julien says. "But it worked out pretty well.”
Many Haitians here think the parole program is too good to be true. Maybe Haitians here have come to the point where they don't think good things can happen to them.Frandley Julien
Julien says he understands why Haitians might be skittish about the parole program. For one thing, he points out, "many think it’s too good to be true.
"Maybe Haitians have come to the point where they don’t think good things can happen to them.”
Other immigration attorneys agree.
“You have to understand the plight that Haitians have endured in order to get some sort of legal status in the U.S.,” says Cassandra Suprin, a Haitian-American and family defense director at the nonprofit Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami.
Suprin notes that Haitians have long been especially targeted by immigration authorities; so as a result, many here assume that sponsoring a migrant under the new parole exposes them to onerous financial or legal risks.
“The biggest thing is, they don’t want to get in trouble, right?" says Suprin.
"They are establishing themselves and their families here. And although they want to help, they really don’t want to do something that would jeopardize their status.”
But perhaps the biggest question and concern is this: What happens if the two-year parole ends — and Haiti is still in the same terrifying condition it is now?
“It comes back over and over again in our information sessions with the community," says Haitian-American Tess Petit, who heads the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
"What happens after the two years, right? Is that person stuck at my house, does that person get deported? They have this fear of taking on the responsibility of someone who may become out of status two years down the road.”
Even immigration attorneys who represent clients from the other three national groups involved in the parole — Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans — worry about that so far open-ended aspect of Biden's policy.
"We're thinking about this a lot," says attorney Patricia Hernandez of the Rotella & Hernandez firm in Miami.
"This is a good program, but I also feel like it's just a short-term Band-Aid until Congress can ever come up with a more permanent solution for people from countries like these. Are we creating another limbo situation, like Temporary Protected Status, where we'll continually be having to renew the parole?"
The Biden administration admits it’s still working out that detail. When Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited Miami recently to tout the parole program, one aide told reporters, "That's still being hammered out."
For now, says Petit, "we're just telling people to be glad we have an alternative for the moment to get people here safely and legally — and we'll worry about the other part when we get there."
That is, if it gets there: 20 Republican-led states, including Florida, have filed a lawsuit against the parole program, insisting it "flouts" federal immigration law. What's more, the attorneys point out that between now and the end of the two-year parole, a GOP president could take the White House and annul the policy.