President Donald Trump faced a backlash Tuesday over his tough immigration policies after announcing that 59,000 Haitians who took refuge in the United States following the 2010 earthquake must return home.
Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle blasted the decision to repatriate the Haitians within 18 months, removing the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) they received after the disaster, which killed more than 200,000 people and destroyed much of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince.
Hundreds of protesters rallied near Trump's Mar-a-Lago retreat in West Palm Beach, Florida -- where the president was spending the Thanksgiving holiday -- to voice their discontent over the move.
"We are fighting and we are going to continue to fight for permanent residency," said 38-year-old Myrtha Abraham, a Haitian hotel worker with TPS -- and a seven-year-old daughter who is an American citizen.
"We have family, we have children, we have houses, we have jobs here."
For Wendi Walsh of Unite Here, a labor group helping organize the demonstration in Florida, "the announcement to end TPS is mean-spirited two days before Thanksgiving."
Haitians and their supporters also demonstrated in New York, warning that the decision would lead to breaking up families. Thousands of children have been born in the United States to people under TPS protections.
In Port-au-Prince, officials said they were grateful for the 18-month grace period, but residents voiced concern about the long-term repercussions.
"We knew this program was only temporary," said Haiti's ambassador to the US, Paul Altidor.
- 'Not ready' -
The US decision announced late Monday by the Department of Homeland Security was expected. But critics said impoverished Haiti is not prepared for an influx of returnees.
"Haiti is not ready," said Marleine Bastien, Director of Haitian Women of Miami.
"It still has people displaced from the earthquake and from Hurricane Matthew. Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused even more damage, the cholera epidemic left 1.2 million people contaminated, there is no access to clean water infrastructure yet," she told AFP.
"You look at the conditions on the ground, and Haiti is a textbook on TPS continuation."
In Canada, officials were girding for a potential surge of Haitians seeking asylum there. Many have already crossed the border from the United States in recent months since the Trump administration signaled its intent to end TPS.
"We've been planning for every conceivable scenario," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said.
- 'Nothing in Haiti' -
Lawmakers from both parties representing districts with large Haitian communities -- particularly in Florida and New York -- lashed out against the decision.
"There is no reason to send 60,000 Haitians back to a country that cannot provide for them. This decision today by DHS is unconscionable," said Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, who represents Florida.
Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican congressman from Miami, said "these individuals are established, respected members of our communities who have made significant contributions, and I urge the administration to reconsider its decision regarding Haitian and Nicaraguan nationals."
Two weeks ago, the Trump administration also terminated the TPS status granted to 5,300 Nicaraguans after Hurricane Mitch slammed Central America in 1998, with renewals granted following other natural disasters.
Tens of thousands of Hondurans under TPS had their stay extended until July, and in January 2018, DHS is expected to decide on the status of some 200,000 TPS immigrants from El Salvador.
TPS is also ending for Sudan as of November 2018, while protections for South Sudanese immigrants were extended until May 2019.
"Nothing in Haiti. Nobody there for me. If Mr Trump doesn't give me residency, I'm lost," Marie Parfait, a 58-year-old woman from Port-au-Prince who lives in Miami and works as a dishwasher, told AFP.
"Please, President Trump, give me residency because I like this country, I like America... I'm not going anywhere."
- Trump crackdown on immigrants -
Since coming to office in January, Trump has pressed for a crackdown on immigration, both legal and illegal, saying it has boosted crime and added to security threats.
Acting on Trump's order, DHS and the Justice Department are upping the pressure on cities and states that provide sanctuary to illegal immigrants, including millions in the country for decades, by not turning them over to immigration officers for deportation.
The Justice Department has ordered a cutoff of federal funds to "sanctuary cities."
In early November, it warned California, the country's largest state by population, that it would lose out on millions of dollars in federal funds if it continued to shield illegal immigrants from federal officers.
Last week, the agency warned 29 "sanctuary" cities, counties and states that they would soon have federal funds cut off.
In response, a San Francisco federal judge ruled Monday that the Trump administration could not act on its threats, calling it unconstitutional and setting up a possible Supreme Court showdown.