The main course at Tuesday's annual Thanksgiving luncheon to honor immigrants was cooked up by the Trump administration, which has elected to end Haitians' seven-year-old temporary protected status in the U.S. in July 2019.
While guests cleared their plates of stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, speaker after speaker in the Great Hall dug into the federal policy that was announced the night before.
The federal government allows the nationals of 10 countries, including Haiti and Nicaragua, to remain in the United States legally if a country is unable to handle the return of those people because of war or natural disasters.
On Monday, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke announced temporary protected status for Haitians would end in July 2019. She announced earlier this year that the protected status for Nicaraguans would end in January 2019.
Attorney General Maura Healey, who has taken the Trump administration to court multiple times this year, indicated she might cut into the Department of Homeland Security's decision with more than just rhetoric.
"In the face of yet another cruel, reckless, illegal, unconstitutional and un-American act by our president you stand strong in the faith and in the belief that it is in and through our immigrant communities that this country is great and will be only greater," Healey said. She said, "We just saw the Trump administration double-down on that reckless record that he has developed by announcing that it is going to phase out temporary protected status for Haitians and Nicaraguans. I want you to know you have the full commitment of my office and me in this fight ahead."
Haiti was leveled by an earthquake in 2010, which led to widespread homelessness and disease. Nicaragua's temporary protected status (TPS) was a response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders endorsed a solution that will allow TPS recipients from Haiti and Central America to remain.
"We will ensure that individuals who are here from Haiti and El Salvador and Nicaragua continue to be here with their families, not torn apart," Sudders said. "And we've got 18 months to work with Congress to get this right."
Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke determined the conditions caused by Haiti's earthquake "no longer exist," according to the department, which reported the number of displaced people in Haiti has decreased by 97 percent since the earthquake.
"Significant steps have been taken to improve the stability and quality of life for Haitian citizens, and Haiti is able to safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens," the department reported. "Haiti has also demonstrated a commitment to adequately prepare for when the country’s TPS designation is terminated."
Sister Marie-Judith Dupuy, a U.S. citizen who is from Haiti and said she has been to the country 17 times in four years, disputed the administration's claims that her homeland is capable of handling the return of its nationals.
"If you've never been to Haiti, you do not know what you are talking about," said Dupuy, director of the Haitian Apostolate at the Diocese of Worcester. She said the lack of permanent shelter has exacerbated people's vulnerabilities to criminals seeking to kidnap people from the U.S.
There are an estimated 58,000 Haitians with TPS in the United States and 4,700 in Massachusetts.
Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American from Dorchester, said Dupuy was granted TPS before gaining U.S. citizenship.
The luncheon hosted by Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition honored Lily Huang, the 31-year-old co-director of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice and this year's recipient of the Young Champion of Justice award.
The award commemorates Analisa Smith-Perez, who interned at MIRA and worked at Northeast Legal Aid in Lynn before dying a year ago at the age of 30. Smith-Perez was the niece of Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and he attended the luncheon to give Huang the award and pay tribute to his late relative.
"She always was running in fifth gear, hard to keep up with her, because she lived her life with a sense of urgency," Perez said.
Perez also heaped criticism and holiday-themed metaphors on the Trump administration decision to end temporary protected status for Haitians.
"The Grinch the day before Thanksgiving announcing such a measure is simply salt on the wound," Perez told the audience.
Forry said the more than a year and a half before TPS finally ends for Haitians will afford activists time to rally for a permanent solution for those Haitians living in the U.S.
"Congress is going to have to step up," Forry told the News Service. On Facebook, she said the decision is "neither a defeat nor a victory, but rather a call to action," writing, "This outcome is tempered only by the reality that many of the forces on the other side of this debate sought an immediate expulsion of Haitian nationals with TPS status. Instead, what we have now is an 18 month window in which we must plan, organize, advocate and persist in our collective work to protect the best interests of Americans and Haitians alike."
Healey's office plans to advocate for a continuation of temporary protected status and lobby for a more permanent solution through Congress, working with MIRA, Irish International Immigration Center and others.
The Boston Foundation reported Tuesday that TPS has allowed Haitians in the U.S. to send aid back home and Haitians with TPS in the Greater Boston area contribute $25 million to the local economy.
Paola Sánchez wants congressional action on a different front. The 20-year-old MassBay Community College student who wants to become a nurse said she moved to the U.S. from Bolivia at the age of 14, started a family here and was granted legal protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Noting it lacked congressional approval, President Donald Trump in September announced he would end the program begun by President Barack Obama, and encouraged Congress to take action on immigration.
"We must base future immigration on merit – we want those coming into the country to be able to support themselves financially, to contribute to our economy, and to love our country and the values it stands for," Trump said in September. "Under a merit-based system, citizens will enjoy higher employment, rising wages, and a stronger middle class."
Sánchez wiped away tears as she talked about how important it is to her to stay in the U.S.
"My future and my family's future is very uncertain. That's why I'm here, because I need your help," said Sánchez, her voice quavering. She said, "I want to stay in this country. I have paid my taxes. I have contributed to this country. I feel like I'm American. My son was born in this country and I don’t want to leave."
Perez assured Sánchez that she would become a nurse and she is an American, just one lacking the necessary paperwork.
"You are an American. You're every bit as American as everyone in this room. We're going to make sure you've got the sheet of paper to prove it," Perez said.