Last Friday, the Department of Homeland Security announced measures to curb illegal immigration and create a path for people fleeing humanitarian crises to enter the United States.
By Monday, Stamford immigration attorney Phil Berns’ phone was ringing like crazy.
Under the Homeland Security program, migrants from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela will not be able to apply for asylum if they cross the border illegally, and Mexico has agreed to accept back 30,000 a month.
In an acknowledgment of the catastrophe that propels migrants from those countries to the border, the program will allow up to 30,000 a month to fly to the U.S. to live and work if they pass background checks, have an eligible sponsor willing to provide housing and financial support, and meet other requirements.
Berns said most of the calls to his office are coming from the thousands of Haitian-Americans who live in lower Fairfield County.
“In this region, there are about 50 times as many Haitians as Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans,” said Berns, an elected member of the Stamford Board of Representatives. “Haitians are fleeing Haiti to anywhere they can get to — even countries where they are not welcome and are not treated well – to get away from the violence and the poverty.”
Conditions in the island nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, are dire, Berns said.
Government is gone and gangs rule.
“People are getting kidnapped and shot,” Berns said. “There are gun fights between gangs and gangs, between gangs and police, gangs and the military, pro-gang police and anti-gang police, pro-gang military and anti-gang military. It is a permanent, roiling disaster.”
The U.S. Census estimates that 20,000 Haitian-Americans live in Connecticut, though the number likely is significantly higher. The population is concentrated in Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport, said Bianca Shinn-Desras, a Stamford native and daughter of Haitian immigrants who has been an advocate for her community.
Shinn-Desras returned from a trip to Haiti on Sunday. She saw things that are difficult to imagine, she said.
“There is not one elected official in Haiti right now. We had a president who was assassinated in 2021, and the mandate for the last 10 remaining members of the parliament expired Tuesday,” she said. “When I was there, the area near my home was under siege because gangs took hold. It would be like criminals getting control of downtown Stamford and the Stamford Police Department coming but being outnumbered and outgunned.”
There were bodies in the streets, Shinn-Desras said.
“There is no infrastructure, no one to pick the bodies up,” she said. “There is a cholera epidemic. The price inflation is so high, but the banks will not let you withdraw more than fifty U.S. dollars a day. Our families are dying of hunger; we can send them money for food but they can’t go to a market because the gangs are waiting there to rob them.”
The country, Shinn-Desras said, “has collapsed.”
The desperation is so severe that it reverberates in Stamford, Norwalk, Bridgeport and other cities where Haitian-Americans live, said Shinn-Desras, a director of family advocacy at Domus, a nonprofit serving young people.
“There is not one Haitian who is not repeatedly traumatized by what goes on in our homeland,” she said. “Most of us have paid money for ransom. I paid. My uncle was kidnapped last summer. You have to negotiate with the kidnappers. We were lucky because they released him. Every time your phone rings, you think it could be a call for ransom, or a call to pick up the body of someone in your family. The gangs will even try to charge ransom for a body.”
She has two brothers-in-law and two cousins who are police officers in Haiti and cannot live in their homes because they will be killed by the gangs that have overrun their neighborhoods, Shinn-Desras said. So they live at the police station.
“We’re always in fear,” she said.
The U.S. Coast Guard this month reported a spike in the number of Haitian asylum seekers going to sea on rafts or in crowded boats that take on water, headed for the Florida coast. The treacherous trips are often deadly.
“What they leave behind is so much worse than the boat ride,” Shinn-Desras said. “At least you have the possibility of reaching U.S. shores. At least you can choose how you will die.”
For Haitians, Homeland Security’s new program offers a flicker of light at the end of a dark tunnel, Shinn-Desras said.
“It’s a big immigration reform that has been extended to Haitians,” she said. “It’s not perfect but it’s an opportunity to bring their families out of a terrible crisis.”
That’s what worries Berns.
“My concern is that a lot of people who don’t qualify will waste time and money applying, and most of the people who do qualify will fail because of incompetent assistance,” he said.
A lawyer is not required, Berns said, but the program rules are complex and require filling out several forms, producing multiple documents, and meeting deadlines.
Migrants from one of the four countries must pass national security and public safety screenings, have a supporter in the U.S. to provide financial and other backing, and fulfill vaccination and other public health requirements. They must have a valid passport and will be considered, case by case, for urgent humanitarian reasons. Anyone who was ordered removed from the U.S. within the last five years is not eligible.
The process begins with online Customs and Border Patrol forms. It ends with applicants buying a ticket to fly to their U.S. destination within 90 days of approval.
Potential sponsors must be a U.S. citizen, a lawful permanent resident, or meet other qualifications. They must submit a Form I-134A for each migrant they wish to sponsor, including children. Sponsors must pass background checks.
Americans interested in sponsoring migrants can sign up at Welcome.US. More information is available at www.uscis.gov/CHNV.
Berns said he estimates that 90 percent of the 5,000 to 6,000 Haitians in Stamford alone have family members and friends they would love to sponsor.
“But a small percentage of that are calling, a smaller percent will do something, a smaller percent of that will qualify, and a smaller percent will do it competently,” Berns said. “My biggest fear is people will screw up their application and the program will end and they will fail.”
They cannot fail, Shinn-Desras said.
“We are screaming. We are crying. I want to make sure someone hears us,” Shinn-Desras said. “We are one of the most resilient groups of people in this world. With their nation under terrorist attack, they still find hope. The only thing holding Haiti up is this miraculous hope.”