Almost immediately after Donald Trump’s election victory last November, Haitian immigrants in the United States, like so many others, began to worry that their days here were numbered. Their worst fears finally came to pass in May, when then-Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) John Kelly announced that a special status that had allowed Haitians to stay in the United States would likely end in January, leaving some 50,000 people at risk of being deported, or forced to go underground. While some Haitians await their fate in the United States, others have come up with a different plan—flee to Canada where, rumor has it, officials would welcome them with open arms. Or so they thought.
Why Canada? Beyond its physical proximity to the United States, Quebec’s official language, like that of Haiti, is French and the city of Montreal is home to a large Haitian population. Rumors about receiving residency in Canada have run rampant on social media, on the popular messaging app WhatsApp, Haitian Creole-language radio, and word-of-mouth from the diaspora.
After a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, killing an estimated 300,000 people and displacing 1 million more, the Obama Administration granted Temporary Protected Status to Haitian nationals in 2011. TPS, which is given to foreign nationals whose countries are facing a humanitarian disaster, allows the grantees to legally work and live in the United States. It is not, however, a route to an eventual green card, and is typically renewed in six or 18-month intervals. The previous Administration regularly renewed the special status. But as the renewal period for Haitian nationals with TPS approached this spring, the Trump Administration announced that it would only extend TPS for six months, while DHS suggested that there would be no more renewals and that Haitians should plan to head back home in January.
“The Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, including its threat to end TPS, has caused fear all year,” says Steven Forester, the immigration policy coordinator at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, who is involved in advocating on behalf of Haitian immigrants.
And because of this, more than 7,000 people have made asylum claims in Canada since January. The majority of the claims were made in Quebec, a popular destination for Haitians seeking refuge. In July, the number of asylum seekers jumped to 2,996, up from 781 in June. In the first two weeks of August alone, that number jumped to 3,800. As asylum seekers near the border, according to news reports, Royal Mounted Canadian Police notify them that doing so is an illegal act and they will be detained. They cross anyway.
The rumors appear to have started in June when Macx Jean-Louis, a New York-based immigration lawyer, organized a presentation for Haitians at a New Jersey church. Jean-Louis also invited Veronica Wilson, an immigration lawyer from Toronto, to simply explain to attendees how the Canadian immigration system works. But the day after the meeting, someone sent a message on WhatsApp, a popular messaging app, saying that the meeting was at the Canadian consulate and that officials were encouraging Haitians with and without TPS to apply for residency in Canada.
According to the Miami Herald, a man claiming to be a lawyer has been saying that Canada is “inviting ‘and even encourages all Haitians with or without TPS to apply for Canadian residency.’” It’s unclear how many people it was sent to. A video from the meeting also appeared on YouTube and was incorrectly labeled as a video from a Canadian consulate.
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation News has stated that “questionable” social media messages about the Canadian immigration system have also come from Jude Metellus, who runs the Haitian Diaspora Organization in Miami. Its Facebook group has 11,000 followers. Metellus told CBC News that he tells immigrants to drive up to the border and request asylum. However, he claims that he does not guarantee to anyone that they’ll actually be granted asylum.
With the end of TPS in sight and the very real prospect of deportation hanging over their heads, and armed with misinformation, Haitians have, therefore, headed to Canada in droves. The threat of TPS ending soon, “gives rise to inaccurate rumors and unwise and premature choices,” says Forester, as people look for refuge.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Canadian official told ABC News that at the end of June about 50 migrants were crossing into Quebec every day. That number jumped to somewhere between 250 and 300 in a matter of weeks. Around 70 percent of the asylum seekers are Haitian and had been living in United States for years.
But as the flow of asylum seekers continues, Canadian officials have warned that the reception awaiting them north of the border may not be as warm as they’re expecting.
Immediately after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought to set himself apart from the Trump Administration by tweeting out messages of support for Syrian refugees, welcoming them to Canada. But the true depth of this promise may now be put to the test. At a news conference in Montreal, Trudeau sent a message to Haitians seeking asylum. “I’d like to remind them there’s no advantage,” he said. “Our rules, our principles, and our laws apply to everyone.”
Francois Legault, the leader of the right-leaning opposition party in Quebec, took a page from Trump’s playbook saying he was concerned about “out-of-hand influx of illegal migrants” coming to the province from the United States, while lambasting the rhetoric of the Quebec Liberal Party, currently in power, as “an invitation to stampede toward the Quebec border ” while calling for tighter border controls.
In response to the conservative rhetoric, Philippe Couillard, Quebec’s premier, made a statement emphasizing humanitarianism yet also referring to security concerns, saying the provincial government was responding to the situation with “compassion and respect for human dignity” but also with “respect for the rule of law.”
Couillard also noted how “sad” it is that “vulnerable people are being convinced that being admitted to Canada” would be “simple, even automatic” but that there is no guarantee that they would be accepted.
Canada’s program for Haitians, similar to TPS, was slowly dismantled starting in 2014, coming to a full close in August of last year. The country’s refugee process is generally quite similar to the United States; being granted asylum requires a valid claim of fear of persecution. Once an individual crosses the border, he or she is usually detained and assessed then released pending a hearing of their asylum claims. Because of the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States, refugees are required to request refugee protection in whichever safe country they arrive in first. However, a loophole in the agreement has allowed asylum seekers coming from the United States to seek refuge nonetheless by crossing into the country irregularly rather than through official border controls.
In recent days, the number of daily asylum seekers has decreased down to about 140. Does this mean that Canadian efforts to stem the spread of false information has succeeded? It may be too early to tell just yet, but resource-strained officials are hoping it’s a trend. The Canadian government has been trying to squash the social media rumors, even sending its Haitian-born parliamentarian Emmanuel Dubourg to Miami to hold a meeting with Haitian community leaders.
Yet the question remains for Haitian nationals on both sides of the border who face an uncertain future: What’s next?
For some TPS recipients, going back to Haiti may not be an option. “I have nothing to go back to,” one person told The New York Times in July. Even more than seven years later, the country is still struggling to recover from the earthquake. One year later, the United Nations, which has been in the country on a peacekeeping mission since 2004, inadvertently caused a cholera outbreak that killed an estimated 10,000 people and sickened many more. A moratorium on deportations that the Obama Administration had placed on undocumented Haitian immigrants was lifted in 2016, as it was in Canada. However, a few weeks later Hurricane Matthew struck the southern coast, causing further widespread devastation and displacement, and leading to the further extension of the ban. Furthermore, many Haitians back home are heavily reliant on remittances from the diaspora abroad.
Despite all this, Forester is not completely pessimistic about the future when it comes to Haitian nationals seeking refuge in the United States. “Termination of Haiti TPS designation isn’t a done deal by any means,” he says. “Advocates are fighting hard, to get the Administration to extend it for another 18 months. The extraordinary recent catastrophes of earthquake, cholera, and Hurricane Matthew make Haiti a textbook case for TPS’ generous extension”
Despite this, many Haitians would rather take a chance and make an asylum claim in Canada rather than wait around to see if the Trump Administration changes its mind. But will they have better success in Canada? Their chances are about 50/50. Last year only about half of asylum claims made by Haitians were accepted.
The spread of false information that helped perpetuate this mass movement north will, sadly, mean many Haitian immigrants hoping to be welcomed with open arms in Canada—as they saw so many months ago with Syrian refugees—may either end living undocumented or going back to the last place they want to be—their home country.