Thousands of Polk County Haitians impacted by end of protected status

By Stephanie Claytor, Spectrum Bay News 9 Reporter
Last Updated: Saturday, December 02, 2017, 7:58 PM EST

The Trump Administration has ended protected status for Haiti, forcing tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants to leave the United States by July 2019 or live in the shadows.

It hits home for the estimated 5,000 Haitians living in Polk County.

Magistene Silorent is one of them. The English as a Second Language Teacher is raising his five year old American born daughter alone, as well as sending portions of his paycheck back to Haiti, so his parents and siblings can survive.

His daughter speaks very little Haitian Creole. It's the reason the college-educated Winter Haven homeowner is upset the federal government is telling him to return to Haiti.

The Polk County school district includes 1,761 households with students who speak Haitian Creole, according to spokesman Rachel Pleasant. That accounts for 1.6 percent of its student population. 

"She doesn’t know anything in Haiti. To bring her to Haiti it would be very hard for her and me too,” said Magistene Silorent.

 Silorent has been living in the United States legally for the past 8 years with a temporary protected status or TPS for short. The designation was granted to Haitians after the 2010 earthquake destroyed Haiti.

With it, he's able to work and drive legally in the United States. Going back to Haiti he said is unthinkable.

"I can not go to another country now to start over,” said Magistene Silorent.

"It's something very hard for everybody when they heard that because if you are here, you work, you are not a criminal. You do everything good. You pay taxes.”

On Nov. 20, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke terminated the status, citing improved conditions in Haiti since the quake.

“Since the 2010 earthquake, the number of displaced people in Haiti has decreased by 97 percent. Significant steps have been taken to improve the stability and quality of life for Haitian citizens, and Haiti is able to safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens,” said a news release from the agency.  “Haiti has also demonstrated a commitment to adequately prepare for when the country’s TPS designation is terminated.”

When asked what his family had to say about the conditions in Haiti, Silorent said, “I talk to my family and friends there and what the government says is not true. Haiti is not better. It’s the worst now. “

Silorent hopes bills that several lawmakers have introduced to give Haitians access to permanent residency in the United States  will pass. One of them was introduced by Rep. Carlos Curbelo, (R ) of Florida.

If the bills don’t pass, immigration attorney Renee Pobjecky said there are  a few  options for Haitian TPS holders wanting to remain in the United States legally. 

 They could enroll in college and apply for a student visa or have an American family member sponsor them.

"If you're married to a US citizen or the son or daughter under 21 or the parent of a US citizen then you may be able to adjust your status to permanent lawful status in the United States. So again there are different situations,” said Renee Pobjecky.

She recommends those affected seek the advice of an attorney.

“I am very concerned. I’ve had several clients come to my office who’ve gone to non-lawyers. They have been the victims of scams. Petitions were incorrectly filed. They were ultimately denied, sometimes losing years. For example, if you are a US citizen sponsoring a brother or sister, the waiting time is 13 years. So if that petition was filed several years ago, you don’t act timely on it, you may lose all that time that was pending and to start over is going to be an extreme delay,” Pobjecky said.

She said people who can't afford a lawyer should seek out charitable organizations like Catholic Charities for reduced or free help.

Like many of the other 32,000 Haitian TPS holders in Florida, Silorent is praying things will change and he won't be forced to leave in 2019.