“When I first came I was in a three bedroom house,” said Joseph, 48, who arrived in Springfield in August 2021, “We had more than 20 people living in that house. (The landlords) just rent the bed in the bedroom. A room can sleep like 10 people. And sometimes the house has only one bathroom.”
Joseph said his struggles were no comparison to the life people in Haiti face every day where gang violence, kidnappings, murders, deep poverty and political chaos are the norm. He’s found Springfield to be a warm and welcoming place, despite recent protests against Haitian immigrants by people at Springfield City Hall in the wake of a fatal school bus accident involving a Haitian immigrant driver on Aug. 22.
“I’m coming here to work. I don’t care if people like me or not. I’m doing my job to take care of my family,” said Joseph, who now has a work permit, a manufacturing job, government approval to live in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status and is a volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul assisting fellow migrants.
Joseph has an asylum claim pending and he is part of the growing population of Haitian immigrants in Springfield who, like immigrants across the nation, face a severely backlogged immigration system that is complicated and the subject of heated political rhetoric.
Congress is gridlocked on reforming the system, providing funding to expedite immigration cases and approving measures to try to stem the tide of new migrants crossing the southern U.S. border.
This newspaper interviewed 18 local immigration experts, social service providers, city and county officials, federal government officials and immigrants about the country’s immigration system, what they believe needs to change and the impact of the enormous growth of the Haitian immigrant community in Springfield.
“I have respect for this community that wants to make Springfield their home,” said Chris Cook, assistant health commissioner for the Clark County Combined Health District and co-chair of the Haitian Coalition of community partner agencies. “And I look forward to the benefits they can provide us with a very culturally diverse community.”
Haitians eligible for Temporary Protected Status
Immigrants here and across the U.S. face long waits for consideration of their applications for work permits and immigration designations such as asylum or Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
TPS is an immigration designation available to Haitians and foreign nationals from 15 other countries that allows them to live and work in the U.S. for up to 18 months, subject to extension or redesignation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
There were 610,630 foreign nationals with approved TPS status in the U.S., including 6,005 in Ohio as of March 31, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data compiled by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
Congress created TPS in 1990, giving the executive branch authority to designate countries undergoing armed conflict, environmental disaster, or extraordinary and temporary conditions that prevented nationals from returning. It can only be offered to people already in the U.S. who don’t have criminal records.
There is no pathway to citizenship with TPS and immigrants can be deported once the period of time covered by the authorization ends.
TPS was first approved for Haitians in 2010 after a major earthquake devastated the country and has been redesignated or extended several times. Former President Donald Trump attempted to end it for Haiti but legal challenges stopped that. After President Joe Biden took office in 2021 his administration extended and redesignated TPS for Haiti, which allowed additional Haitians already in the country to become eligible.
Currently 80% of TPS applications are processed within 18 months, according to the USCIS website. Once approved for TPS immigrants can immediately apply for a work permit, but they face processing delays.
Many of the Haitian immigrants in Springfield qualify for TPS status and often they’ve applied for asylum as well, said Kathleen Kersh, senior attorney at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, who has been assisting Haitians in Springfield.
“Almost every Haitian person I’ve met in Springfield either came to the US with a visa or presented themselves at a port of entry at the U.S./Mexico border to lawfully ask for asylum,” Kersh said. “Allowing people to stay in the United States while their asylum claims are adjudicated is not only lawful, it’s required by our legal system.”
The Haitians were drawn to Springfield by its reputation as a place with lots of jobs, a low cost of living, supportive services and the presence of other Haitians, according to those interviewed. The Haitian community grew over the last five or six years to an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people.
“They want the American Dream. Their version of the American Dream might be at a lower level than what some of us have now. But still, to get an apartment of your own that is warm, has lights, has water, nobody is going to coming kicking through the door after you,” said Virginia K. Martycz, director of Clark County Job and Family Services.
“It’s not so much to ask for.”
Immigration is controversial
The quest for a new life in a new place is older than America itself. And today’s immigrants are not the first to face opposition from some of the country’s private citizens and politicians.
In Springfield the death of 11-year-old Northwestern student Aiden Clark in the bus accident raised concerns about Haitian immigrants driving without licenses. But critics also allege that the Haitians are here illegally and complain they are taking American jobs, getting taxpayer funded assistance and draining resources at non-profits. Some called for their removal.
The city formed an Immigration Accountability Response Team to look into concerns and formulate responses.
“We want to make sure that we protect our community and that we are serving our community and that we are responding to issues in our community,” said City Manager Bryan Heck.
Springfield City Commissioner Krystal Phillips said the rhetoric about Haitians sounds a lot like what people said about Black Americans in earlier decades, and she called for more civility.
“You need to change the viewpoint of (they are) ‘invaders’ and it being a ‘Haitian crisis, illegal aliens, illegals, they, them, those people,’'’ Phillips said.
“They look different, they speak a different language. There is always a fear that they will take something from certain American citizens. Or that somehow their footing will be lost, or their jobs will be taken or that their power within this country is going to be somehow removed or somehow they’re going to get less of the pie, less of the American dream,” she said.
Legal experts and social services providers who work with the Haitians disputed the notions that most are here illegally, getting public resources they’re not entitled to and edging Americans out of jobs.
“The Haitians that I’ve met all have permission to be here. The federal government knows they are here,” Kersh said.
Immigrants with proper documentation who meet financial thresholds can be eligible for Medicaid, food stamps and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and in certain cases immigrants can get refugee cash assistance, said Martycz.
“They are not being given any extra funds,” she said. “The families just want some support to survive. They want to work and not be involved with the government.”
There has been phenomenal growth in the number of Haitians on the county’s public assistance rolls, increasing from seven cases in 2018 to about 2,705 cases involving 3,300 individuals in September, Martycz said. But Haitian and other immigrants make up a small percentage of the department’s total caseload. For example about 6% of the 49,651 individuals receiving Medicaid in the county are non-citizens.
Haitians represented 15% of total applicants approved for public assistance and 20% of applicants disapproved in August, Martycz said, and 48% of Haitian applicants were not approved for benefits.
Her department and the health district both use language as an identifier, so statistics are kept on clients who speak Haitian Creole, the predominant language of the Haitian immigrants.
The health district served 178 Haitian Creole speakers at its immunization clinics between April-June 2023, or 33% of total clients, and the Women, Infants and Children clinic had 530 Haitians, which is 8.9% of total clients, between July 2022 and July 2023, said Nate Smith, public information officer for the health district.
The nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul of Springfield is playing a key role in assisting Haitian immigrants as well.
“What we are doing is, first of all, anybody that walks up to me and is hungry, we’re feeding them,” said Casey Rollins, board president and executive director of the volunteer organization.
“Believe it or not the Haitians do not need as much of that as one would think. They’re not draining the food resources as much as people are saying,” said Rollins, noting that her group also provides clothing and computers and assistance in its office for immigrants applying for work permits.
She said a group of local attorneys trained in immigration law assists with legal advocacy and the state helped fund interpreters for community agencies. Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio also trained interpreters and is working with victims of hate crimes and others eligible for legal services, said CEO Tony Stieritz.
Those interviewed said the biggest hurdle the Springfield Haitian immigrants face is the long delay in getting work permits, but once they get them they have proven to be both eager to work and a boon to companies in a city with large workforce needs.
“And just talking anecdotally to some of the employers in town, when they’ve hired people from Haiti, they love it that they show up to work every day, can pass a drug screen and are willing to work overtime and work hard,” Cook said.
The U.S. offers visas for foreign nationals intending to be here temporarily, such as tourist, business or student visas.
To immigrate legally foreign nationals can get employment sponsorship, family sponsorship or use humanitarian pathways such as refugee or asylum status, said Miranda Cady Hallett, associate professor of cultural anthropology and director of Human Rights Studies at the University of Dayton.
There also are humanitarian and family reunification parole programs and U-visas for crime victims, Kersh said.
The law limits the number of visas sponsored by companies or family members so immigrants can face long waits before they can come to the U.S.
Some immigrants can apply to get green cards, which allow them to become permanent residents and eventually become citizens.
Waiting periods for work permits, including a 150-day wait after an asylum claim is filed, as well as numerical limits on employment-based visas are built into immigration law to protect American jobs, said Ericka Curran, an immigration attorney and associate professor of legal professional skills at the University of Dayton School of Law.
“They don’t want companies to just look for a cheaper foreign worker,” Curran said, referring to the employment visas. “Companies have to prove they cannot find American workers and then sponsor the workers for that kind of immigration benefit to be approved.”
Curran, Kersh and Hallett said immigrants are sometimes exploited by employers.
“Over the years I’ve done a lot of employment-based human trafficking cases where a company recruited workers and then didn’t treat them well,” said Curran, referring to legal work she did in Florida. “They were essentially slaves when they got here.”
Kersh said a number of her immigrant clients who are human trafficking survivors came in on H-2A visas for temporary agricultural workers.
Several of those interviewed called for Congress to reform the immigration system, or at least do something to expedite work permits and resolve the huge backlog in immigration cases.
Major immigration reform laws passed Congress in 1986 and 1990 but the last time comprehensive reform came anywhere near passage in Congress was 2013, when the U.S. Senate approved a bipartisan bill but the Republican-led House of Representatives did not consider it.
Today large numbers of immigrants are coming from Central and South America, including record numbers of Venezuelans fleeing their economically devastated country.
At the southwest border authorities reported 2.2 million encounters from October 2022 through August 2023 with migrants who were apprehended, deemed inadmissible or expelled under the now-defunct Title 42 pandemic health emergency rule, according to an analysis of U.S. Customs and Border Protection data that does not indicate how many of those were repeat encounters with individuals attempting to cross the border.
Last week the Biden Administration announced it would begin to immediately deport Venezuelans who cross the border illegally. Biden also decided to waive a variety of federal laws, including environmental ones, in order to build a 20-mile section of border wall and roads in south Texas that Congress in 2019 mandated be built by the end of this year. Biden said he does not believe walls work but he couldn’t get Congress to reallocate the money, so it has to be spent as Congress mandated, the Associated Press reported.
Both U.S. senators from Ohio say the immigration system needs fixed and have supported bills to address issues at the southwest border.
“It is clear that presidents of both parties have failed on the border,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “We need to get additional personnel and more resources and better technology to the border. I have a bill to do that. And to solve this problem long term, we need to finally pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, blamed Biden, saying his immigration policies are overwhelming communities like Springfield.
“This self-imposed disaster is crushing the job prospects of our citizens, making it more difficult for Ohio families to find homes and draining social service programs funded by American taxpayers,” Vance said. “People who are here illegally should be sent back to their home countries as soon as possible, and individuals here on temporary status should not expect to stay indefinitely.”
In Springfield the people who work with Haitian immigrants every day believe the community will work through the immediate challenges caused by the rapid growth in numbers. They said the new immigrants are good for the community and the economy, and they deserve to be treated humanely.
“I just think this is a time for us to show compassion,” said Martycz. “It’s a good opportunity for us to show compassion and to help others and treat them way that we would like to be treated.”
See our series on immigration and the growing Haitian community in Springfield:
Haitian immigrants in Springfield face complex immigration system and long delays
Springfield’s Haitian population evolving from strangers to neighbors
‘I’m really thankful’: Immigrants sworn in as U.S. citizens at Constitution Day ceremony
PHOTOS: Immigrants take an oath to become U.S. citizens
Clark County works to provide driving education for local Haitians
Follow @LynnHulseyDDN on Facebook, Instagram and X (formerly known as Twitter)