This week, the Rev. Frantz Ulysse felt the imposing immigration plans of the Trump administration reach all the way into his tidy, one-story Haitian church in West Oak Lane: Three dozen parishioners who have lived and worked here for years could be among the next group of foreign nationals ordered out of the country.
“I’m praying, I’m praying,” said the leader of the First Haitian Church of God of Prophecy. “I’m asking God to touch this administration’s heart.”
In the city’s Haitian community — about 7,500 people, with more spread across suburbs from Elkins Park to Langhorne — it can seem like everyone has a brother, cousin or parent in danger of a fast forced exit.
An estimated 600,000 Haitians live in the United States, half of them citizens through naturalization. But about 46,000 are here under a conditional approval called Temporary Protected Status (TPS). And that safeguard is set to expire in January.
Protection was granted to Haitians after the January 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of the capital city of Port-au-Prince and killed an estimated 230,000. Six years later, Hurricane Matthew blasted the island, leaving as many as 1,000 dead.
Nationally, TPS allows about 320,000 immigrants from 10 countries to stay here because of war, floods, droughts, or epidemics in their homelands. But the status, enacted by Congress in 1990, was never meant to be permanent. The law empowers the White House to not only designate a country’s citizens for temporary protection, but to determine when that nation has recovered sufficiently for them to return.
Over time, for countries like Haiti, the renewal of six- or 18-month grants became routine, and as years passed, people put down roots, had children, bought houses, paid taxes, and took out loans for cars and appliances. Some Haitians say they are Americans in every way, that this is their country – they just started life elsewhere, like generations of immigrants before.
Now the Trump administration has signaled its intent to enforce the letter of the law on TPS, amid its wider crackdown on immigration. This month, officials announced the termination of TPS for Nicaragua, meaning 2,550 migrants must leave or seek another form of legal residency by January 2019.
Haiti’s TPS designation ends on Jan. 22. Federal officials must make an announcement 60 days in advance, creating a potential Thanksgiving-week jolt.
Some people in Ulysse’s church already have left for Canada, where hundreds of Haitians fled last summer, forcing that government to set up a shelter at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Others intend to stay put, hoping they’ll be overlooked.
Their allies say forcing people back to a damaged homeland is inhumane — but that, legally, there’s little that can be done to stop it.
If TPS expires, said Philippe Weisz, managing attorney at HIAS Pennsylvania, people revert to their prior immigration status. For most Haitians under TPS, that’s “undocumented,” meaning they lack the legal papers required to stay here.
“It is pretty dire,” said Weisz, whose agency serves immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.
Some Haitians fear for their American-born children — U.S. citizens — and are hurrying now to try to line up reliable, long-term caretakers.
“We are going to have on our hands a bunch of kids without their mothers,” said Merytony Pierre-Jean, a local Haitian talk-show host on Radio Nouvelle Alliance. “People are very worried, worried about what’s next with their lives. The America we know is the land of opportunity, where people can start a better life, and we are really losing that.”
Haitians could go home. But, they ask, to what?
An island about the size of Maryland, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. Close to 60 percent of its 11 million residents live in poverty; the unemployment rate is above 40 percent. Medical care is limited, inflation high, corruption pervasive.
In February the nation swore in a new president — after an electoral crisis left the office vacant for nearly a year.
Pierre-Jean, a naturalized U.S. citizen, worries for friends who may have to leave but also for the people they serve here, because many Haitians perform important but low-paying jobs as home health aides and nursing-home staffers.
A friend here under TPS was a lawyer in Haiti and now works as an Uber driver. He happened to be on vacation in the United States when the earthquake struck, destroying everything he owned. There’s nothing for him there.
“The U.S. is showing a big, beautiful image when you are living overseas, that this is the best place to be, and they open the door,” Pierre-Jean said. “Before you know it, something is happening and they say you have to go back.”
Conservatives argue, however, that enforcement of TPS deadlines for Haitians and others is neither sudden nor unfair. The “T” in TPS stands for “temporary,” they point out, and people knew from the beginning that this act of benevolence carried a deadline. The integrity of the program depends on adherence to its rules.
Allowing Haitians and others to stay indefinitely means they would circumvent the legal immigration process and “step in front of people who are doing what we asked them to do, which is get in line in their home countries and wait patiently,” said Dave Ray, communications director of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a hard-line anti-immigration group in Washington.
The economic arguments lack validity, he said, because the jobs would stay when the people left, potentially filled by some of the 90 million Americans who have left the workforce.
“Haiti wasn’t a Garden of Eden before, and it’s not one today,” Ray said, “but it’s certainly improved, and it could use the skills and education that its citizens have picked up here in the United States to reach its full potential.”
Some Haitians supported Trump, and voted for him, after his September 2016 campaign stop in “Little Haiti” in Miami, where he said, “Whether you vote for me or not, I really want to be your biggest champion.” But when his administration extended Haiti’s TPS status for six months in May, then-director of Homeland Security John Kelly warned that people “need to start thinking about returning.”
Now Haitians seek to remind the president of his words and press their case on all fronts for a TPS extension.
“We have a group that is working on that, writing letters to the president and vice president,” said Michel Francois, a leader in the Haitian Coalition of Philadelphia.
Through intermediaries, several local people protected under TPS declined to be interviewed, saying they feared the exposure.
Allies say the pain will extend beyond those forced back. Families in Haiti depend on remittances from those working here to pay for food, clothing and medicine. The World Bank estimates that Haitians in the U.S. sent home a collective $1.3 billion in 2015.
Some of that money came from a church on Chelten Avenue.
“Those people who have TPS, they’re helping Haiti, and they’re helping the United States by paying taxes,” Ulysse said. “It’s a big mistake to send my brothers and sisters home. … I beg the president to do something.”