By Daniel Trotta
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Haitian immigrants on Tuesday decried a U.S. decision to end a program that granted 59,000 Haitians temporary visas after the 2010 earthquake, saying they would be sent back to a country that has yet to recover from that disaster and others since.
The United States offered Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to Haitians after the January 2010 earthquake killed some 300,000 people and devastated a country that has long been the poorest in the Americas.
The administration of former President Barack Obama extended the program several times, finding that conditions in Haiti were too dire to send the beneficiaries home. President Donald Trump's administration, after previously granting a six-month extension, announced on Monday that it would end TPS for Haiti in July 2019.
Any Haitian who cannot obtain another kind of U.S. visa will be subject to deportation back to the Caribbean nation, where some earthquake victims are still homeless and the country is wobbling from Hurricane Matthew, a cholera outbreak and political instability.
"We're just left in a void," said Sebastian Joseph, 26, a Haitian immigrant living in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where Haitians and other Caribbeans are concentrated.
He said virtually all Haitians want to stay in the United States, where they have carved out a niche in construction and healthcare services such as caring for the elderly and sick.
"America has been the home of the free for 200 years or more. Everybody wants to come to America," Joseph said. "A lot of people will go back to nothing."
Trump's supporters note that the visa program was always meant to be temporary and that Trump ran a 2016 presidential campaign promising restrictive immigration policies.
At least one Haitian TPS recipient in Brooklyn accepted that eventually she must return.
"If they say I have 18 months and that's it, I say thank God, and then I will go," said Margaret Etienne, who gave birth to a 3-year-old son here who is now a U.S. citizen.
"It's my country. I love my country," she said after buying takeout from a Haitian restaurant with her son on a stretch of Church Avenue that is also called Bob Marley Boulevard, after the late Jamaican musician.
In ending the TPS designation, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke said she had determined that the "extraordinary but temporary conditions caused by the 2010 earthquake no longer exist."
Some critics dispute that Haiti has recovered and question how Duke reached such a conclusion.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, the state with the most Haitians, urged Trump to extend TPS, warning in a column he wrote for the Miami Herald that "Haitians sent home will face dire conditions, including lack of housing, inadequate health services and low prospects for employment."
Fifty-nine percent of Haiti's population lives below the poverty line of $2.41 per day, according to the World Bank.
"It's not going to be good for me. I don't know what I would do," said Ives Joseph Laforgue, 63, an unemployed Haitian immigrant in Flatbush who said he had open-heart surgery in 2014 and lives off the charity of Brooklyn's Haitian community. Still, he said he would have even less in Haiti.
Haitian community leaders and pro-immigration politicians in New York on Tuesday pledged to pressure the Trump administration to extend TPS.
Among them was U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat who introduced legislation that would protect from deportation immigrants who have TPS and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), another program subject to presidential discretion that was extended by Obama but is due to expire in March 2018.
Ricot Dupuy, station manager of Radio Soleil, a Haitian-themed broadcaster in New York, said he thinks the decision is racially motivated.
"This pressure to send immigrants back home ... The idea is to whiten America," Dupuy said from his Brooklyn studio.
"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is not stupid. They know that TPS holders, it's good for this country. The business community knows it's good for them. And eventually they may have the last word."
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta Additional reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Toni Reinhold)