MIRAMAR, Fla. (AP) — Farah Larrieux feels like she's about to be forced out after living and working in the U.S. for more than a decade. Immigration privileges granted to her and many other Haitians after the 2010 earthquake could soon be revoked.
President Donald Trump's appointees must announce by May 23 whether to continue "temporary protected status" for about 50,000 Haitians legally living and working in the U.S. Without this status, they could suddenly face deportation.
A top immigration official has argued that Haiti is stable enough for its citizens to no longer need protection from deportation. According to emails obtained by The Associated Press , Trump appointees are looking for evidence that Haitian immigrants have committed crimes before announcing the decision.
As President Barack Obama's administration repeatedly extended the benefits for Haitians, Florida came to feel like a permanent home to Larrieux.
"I am planning my life, settling down. I can tell you that I am financially getting stable — but now I don't know what's going to happen in the next three months," she said.
Four years after Larrieux arrived in Florida in 2005, she had been divorced and depressed. Her visa had expired, and her green card application was rejected. The post-quake benefits gave her a lifeline: She got a Florida driver's license, returned to school and built a company promoting Haitian entertainers from her home in Miramar.
"It was a rebirth," she said.
According to James McCament, President Donald Trump's acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Haiti's poverty, political instability, infrastructure problems and cholera outbreak no longer qualify its citizens for a program responding to countries in crisis.
"Those myriad problems remaining in Haiti are longstanding problems which have existed for many years before the 2010 disaster," McCament wrote in an April 10 memo first reported by USA Today. His recommendation: end the status once current benefits expire July 22, and give the Haitians until January to leave voluntarily.
The AP obtained emails sent from April 7 to May 1 showing a USCIS policy chief repeatedly asking staff how often Haitians with temporary status were convicted of crimes and how many took advantage of public benefits. Her employees replied that such data weren't available or difficult to find in government records.
USCIS spokeswoman Sharon Scheidhauer said the agency doesn't discuss "pre-decision documents." She said Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly hadn't made a decision regarding Haiti.
A criminal history disqualifies an applicant for temporary protected status, and recipients aren't eligible for public benefits, so Trump is "not going to be able to find the evidence he's looking for, and if he does, it's fake news," Cheryl Little of Americans for Immigrant Justice said Tuesday.
Haitian-American leaders and Haitian Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Rodrigue said deporting established property owners, entrepreneurs, students, taxpayers and the parents of U.S.-born children could cut off their remittances, financially crippling a country where the quake killed up to 300,000, cholera has killed least 9,500 since 2010 and Hurricane Matthew's landfall killed 546 in October.
Immigrant rights advocates say the U.S. economy also would suffer. Deporting the affected Haitians could cost $469 million, and $428 million in contributions to Social Security and Medicare would be lost over the next decade, according to estimates by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
"These people are working. They are contributing. They have lives here," said Marleine Bastien, of Haitian Women of Miami. "This is one of the gravest crises we've been facing since the earthquake."
Temporary protected status allows immigrants from countries experiencing armed conflict or environmental disasters to legally live and work here. To be eligible, Haitians had to live in the U.S. before Jan. 12, 2011. Residency and employment authorizations were renewed every 18 months.
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors strict immigration policies, said Haitians never should have expected permanent privileges.
"There is always going to be something happening in Haiti," Mehlman said. "Unless things are absolutely perfect, which they never were and they will never be, we would have to allow people to remain here indefinitely."
Haitian government officials said Wednesday they're ill-equipped to welcome back tens of thousands of people.
"Their return would be detrimental to us," said Dave Fils-Aime, a political and economic affairs specialist for Haiti's embassy in Washington.
The same benefits currently extend to citizens of a dozen other countries. It's unclear if USCIS also inquired about their criminal histories.
McCament's memo didn't address the expiration of benefits next year for nearly 355,000 immigrants from Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, who have had "temporary protected status" for nearly 20 years. Immigrants from the other countries arrived more recently and in fewer numbers.
Trump wooed Haitian-Americans as the Republican nominee, despite wide support for Democrats in their community, which makes up 1.8 percent of Florida voters.
"The Haitian people deserve better, as I intend to give them," Trump said in Miami's Little Haiti in September. "I will be your champion."
In the USCIS emails, Larrieux hears echoes of the prejudice Haitians suffered in the 1980s when U.S. doctors wrongly identified them as a risk factor for AIDS.
"Now they're going to put a tag on us that we are criminals and we're abusing the system? This is discrimination," Larrieux said. "Does that mean that white people don't do crimes? That there's no American born in the U.S., or people with green cards, or people who get their citizenship who commit crimes? If that's their argument, they're wrong."
Associated Press writer David McFadden in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this report.