Attorneys representing a group of Haitian plaintiffs argued that the Trump administration was motivated by racism and a political agenda more than actual evidence when it decided to end Temporary Protected Status for tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants. The program, known as TPS, has allowed Haitians to remain in the U.S. since a devastating 2010 earthquake.
Opening arguments were made in federal court in Brooklyn today before Judge William F. Kuntz, who was appointed by President Obama in 2011.
The lawsuit is one of several moving through federal courts that challenge the Trump Administration’s decision to end TPS for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, including 59,000 Haitians. TPS is designated for nationals coming from countries hit by civil war and natural disasters.
In October, a judge in San Francisco temporarily blocked the administration’s actions, citing the president’s remarks denigrating immigrants, including his widely-reported comment that Haitians, Mexicans and others were “people from shithole countries.”
That remark has figured prominently in the Brooklyn trial as well. When the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Howard Roin, referred to the president’s “s-hole comment,” using an abbreviated form so as to seemingly not violate court decorum, the judge interrupted and instructed him to say “shithole.”
“Use the term,” Judge Kuntz said. “This is grownup land.”
At the same time, the judge overrode an objection from the government lawyers, who seemed uncomfortable with any mention of the president’s inflammatory remarks.
“Excuse me!” the judge replied. “He’s making opening arguments.”
Roin also argued for the plaintiffs that the president’s racial animus heavily informed the administration’s decisions, and that the Department of Homeland Security “simply deleted inconvenient facts” about the true conditions in Haiti in order to make a case that the country had dramatically recovered from the earthquake.
Citing government emails and other documents, Roin argued that in 2017, then-Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke had been pressured by Trump advisor Stephen Miller and others to ignore continuing signs of devastation in Haiti.
“DHS did not even attempt to make a good-faith determination,” said Roin.
Attorneys for the federal government, however, said Duke had independently arrived at her decision to end TPS for Haiti. They argued that the Haitian economy had genuinely improved, that a cholera outbreak caused by U.N. peacekeepers had stabilized after causing thousands of Haitian deaths and that the population of displaced persons living in camps had gone down by 98 percent since its peak.
“Only 38,000 of 2 million Haitians who lost homes were living in camps in October 2017,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Marutollo.
However, an expert witness for the plaintiffs challenged that argument.
Ellie Happel, the Haiti Project Director at the NYU School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic, said the majority of those who left camps “left due to forced eviction or threats of forced eviction.” Many of them, she said, returned to homes that remained badly damaged from the 2010 earthquake.
Happel also countered the Trump administration’s claims that Haiti had overcome political crises, arguing that “Haiti is more politically unstable today than it was just after the earthquake.”
Inflation is at “record levels.” Half the Haitian population remains malnourished, and while cholera is no longer the problem it was, Happel said another hurricane could cause the disease to spike once again.
“Haiti,” said Happel, “is unable to safely repatriate its nationals.”
Among the spectators for the legal proceedings was Gerald Michaud, a TPS recipient and one of the plaintiffs. Michaud, 46, said he works three jobs, including one as a security guard at LaGuardia airport, and arrived in the U.S. just days before the earthquake hit Haiti.
“My country is not rebuilt yet,” he said outside the courthouse.
Michaud said he sends $300 each month to friends and family in Haiti, a total of ten people by his count, many of whom are struggling to get by and depend on his remittances.
“I’m here for a lot of people,” he said.
Arun Venugopal is a reporter who focuses on issues of race and immigration at WNYC. You can follow him on Twitter at @arunNYC.