At three months pregnant, Kerlyne Paraison, 40, packed a bag one Saturday evening 13 years ago, waved goodbye to her aunt and headed to a Bahamian dock where she crawled into the hold of a small boat with a cousin and 35 strangers.
Soon, she was speeding across the blue waters of the Atlantic, unsure of where she was headed. When the boat finally stopped off the coast of Bimini, she and her fellow passengers were thrown a rope and told to climb onboard another, bigger vessel.
“The way the trip happened, is something extraordinary and I have to thank God,” Paraison said, recalling her illegal journey to America where she didn’t pass through a formal immigration checkpoint at an airport, but was whisked through a wrought iron gate at a Miami Beach marina and into a safehouse before being driven to the home of a relative.
“They always tell you that ‘In life, if you want to reach some place, you have to make the sacrifice,’ ” said Paraison.
While she made it to a new land and a new life, that sacrifice could end up costing the Haiti-born immigrant the ability to eventually become a “green card” holder with U.S. permanent residency.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that undocumented immigrants like Paraison who entered the U.S. illegally and have been granted temporary protection in the U.S. due to conditions in their homeland, are not eligible for green cards, the first step before being eligible for citizenship.
Obtaining Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, the court said, cannot be considered a proper “inspected and admitted” entry to the U.S., which is a requirement for lawful permanent resident status. The ruling does not apply to TPS holders who entered with a U.S. visa and overstayed.
TPS HOLDERS CONSIDERED INELIGIBLE
The high court’s unanimous decision in the case of Sanchez v. Mayorkas is a huge blow and yet another roadblock for many of the 400,000 immigrants from a dozen countries, whose nationals have been granted the right to temporarily live and work in the U.S. after their homelands qualified for Temporary Protected Status because of war or natural disaster.
Immigration advocates say the impact of the court’s decision varies from community to community, and puts pressure on Congress to pass immigration reform so that immigrants can stop living in legal limbo. The House of Representatives has passed legislation that would provide a path to legal residency and citizenship for immigrants with TPS. But the legislation, Dream and Promise Act also known as HR6, faces a tough road to approval.
Florida Republican senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, who are among those opposed to the legislation have repeatedly said that TPS is meant to be temporary, not something that should be a path to something permanent. Scott has come out in support of the unanimous Supreme Court ruling.
“I had a plan to help TPS and got all the Republicans on board, and Democrats blocked it twice,” Scott said, referring to attempts in 2019 to grant TPS to Venezuelans on the Senate floor in exchange for putting more requirements on renewing TPS designations once they are made. Democrats blocked Scott’s plan because they did not support more requirements on renewing TPS designations. Republicans in Congress and former President Donald Trump did not pass TPS for Venezuelans, which President Joe Biden did shortly after his inauguration.
Scott said the issue of granting TPS to countries with humanitarian crises and providing pathways to permanent residency or citizenship for immigrants are “totally separate” issues.
“It’s a totally separate issue because it’s a temporary program,” Scott said. “We’ve got to have more legal immigration and less illegal immigration and we’ve got to make sure we bring in people who help our economy.”
On Tuesday, Rony Ponthieux, a Haitian TPS holder and nurse who came to the United States 22 years ago, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee urging them to pass HR6.
“It would be extremely difficult for my family and me to be forced to leave after 20 years of living in the United States and return to a country in shambles,” Ponthiex told senators.
He added: “My message to this administration, the government, and Senate is to think about fair treatment for TPS holders. Now is not the time to play politics — we need real solutions.”
There are over 55,000 TPS recipients from Haiti, of which 14% live in Florida. Last month, the Biden administration granted a new designation of TPS to Haiti that is set to benefit more than 100,000 people.
Advocates have been pushing for renewals for Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador as well as Somalia, which is up for renewal on July 19.
“Anytime there is an issue in the news that impacts immigrants, it brings to life the whole issue and the need for immigration reform,” said Randolph McGrorty, the head of Catholic Legal Services, noting that the Supreme Court decision could have paved the way to regulate the status of hundreds of thousands of TPS holders.
In addition to fighting for Congress to pass immigration reform, McGrorty said advocates are also fighting to get U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to reinstate a long-standing rule and practice that allowed those with TPS to leave the country, with permission, and reenter and have their reentry be considered “an inspection and parole” for the purposes of getting a green card through a family member.
During the Trump administration, the agency issued a memo saying that as of August 2020, TPS holders could not have their travel be considered for the purposes of adjusting their status to residency. The Supreme Court ruling did not address this, but the rule has not been reinstated, which would help thousands of TPS holders.
“USCIS still has the authority and the discretion to return to its prior policy, which is legal and worked for thousands and thousands of immigrants,” McGrorty said.
But until that happens, many remain troubled by the Supreme Court’s decision and scared for the future.
“Every time I think about it, I have a huge headache,” Paraison said, describing a similar reaction every time she faces expiration of her TPS benefits.
JOURNEY AT SEA
Born in Haiti, Paraison left in 2008, two years before the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. The disaster left more than 300,000 dead and 1.5 million Haitians homeless resulting in the Obama administration’s decision to designate TPS for the country.
Haitian advocates and their supporters had lobbied various U.S. administrations for years, requesting TPS on behalf of Haiti as it struggled for years with multiple man-made and natural disasters after ending a nearly 30-year Duvalier family dictatorship.
The year Paraison decided to leave Haiti, the country had experienced four back-to-back tropical storms and hurricanes in 30 days and hunger riots. It was also dealing with gang violence.
“There were gangs, who every night would confront people,” Paraison said about her Fontamara neighborhood situated on the southern edge of the capital.
She concedes the gang problem then was nowhere near how it is currently. A new wave of gang violence in Port-au-Prince in the last two weeks, has forced nearly 8,500 women and children to flee their homes, according to the UNICEF. “The capital is now facing an urban guerrilla war, with thousands of children and women caught in the crossfire,” Bruno Maes, UNICEF Representative in Haiti, said, describing the insecurity, which also includes an alarming spike in kidnappings.
The gang clashes have erupted in the areas of Delmas, Martissant and Fontamara, where Paraison is from.
“Things haven’t improved,” she said. “They’ve become worse. Back then, there wasn’t kidnapping. Now there is kidnapping.”
The specter of gang violence and the inability to scrape out a living were enough, Paraison said, to convince her to leave. She at first considered Panama, but decided to take her chances on Nassau, Bahamas. She flew to the country on a visa and soon found a housekeeping job.
“I always thought if I left, I would be able to find an improvement for my family,” she said about her decision, describing Haiti as “difficult.”
It was while working in Nassau and living with an aunt that she learned about the smuggling trip to the U.S. A cousin, who would later, join her and then eventually relocate to Canada, told her about the pending voyage.
“It was a Thursday, and he said, ‘Kerlyne, there is a movement,’ implying a smuggling trip was in the works.
She went to see a Bahamian man involved in the organization of the trip. “He said, ‘You don’t have to be afraid. It’s going to be a big tourist boat.”
The trip, he said, cost $5,000 and Friday would be the final day to pay. Paraison only had $2,000, however. She called an uncle in Miami who wired the remaining $3,000.
On Saturday, she told her aunt, “I’m going to take my chance.”
Later that day, under the cover of darkness, she and her cousin waved goodbye and headed to the dock. She was shocked to discover that the supposed tourist boat was small and flat, with a hold she and the 36 others were told to hide inside.
“I was scared,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh my God. I am already afraid of the ocean and I don’t know how to swim.’”
Then she saw her traveling companions: A group of Chinese migrants who were also being smuggled.
“I kept thinking the boat would sink,” she said. “They kept saying, ‘You don’t have to be afraid.’ ”
The voyage was rough below. They could feel every bounce of the sea, and the water was coming inside the hold. Then it suddenly stopped.
“I saw a huge boat,” she said. “The small boat pulled next to it, they dropped a rope but the lights were never turned on. Then I saw all of the Chinese grab the rope and they were being pulled up and dropped into the boat.”
Then came her turn.
“I said, “I don’t know how I am going to make it,” she said. “My cousin told me to make an effort so I can climb onto the boat. The little boat started rocking because there was only us left.”
Paraison eventually made it onboard. “When I went onboard, it was beautiful. The inside was beautiful. It was air conditioned, there were rugs on the floor. You’re onboard and don’t realize you’re on the ocean. There were rooms to sleep in and a large living room. It was as if we had stepped into a house. The boat was speeding and you didn’t even know it was.”
At one point, sea sickness got the best of her. She began vomiting. That’s when she started to believe her new life was within her reach.
She knows she is lucky and that hers was an extraordinary, and unusual journey. Most migrants being smuggled to Florida from the Bahamas are often brought in overcrowded, go-fast boats and are often forced to jump overboard while still out to sea. In the process, untold numbers die. Those who don’t often are intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard along the way or picked up by authorities once they land and eventually repatriated to Haiti.
Recently, 22 Haitian immigrants were intercepted and repatriated on June 10 by the U.S. Coast Guard. They were 30 minutes away from the Florida coast, near Lake Worth. Most of the immigrants were from Haiti, and upon returning told agents with the International Office for Migration that they had paid $4,000 for the journey.
“There are a lot of people who never make it along the route,” Paraison said.
“I don’t even know how to swim in a pool, or even in a river. I’ve always been afraid of the sea, but I believed that God would help me arrive safely because I was in search of a better life,” she said.
Now she doesn’t know how long that better life might last.
Paraison, a certified nursing assistant who lives in Little Haiti, just gave birth to twins in April. Her two other children are 13 and 7.
“I have nothing in Haiti. Nothing. Nothing to go back to,” she said. “Just the thought of having to go back makes me nauseous, just like that boat.”
McClatchy Staff Writer Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.