Nashville pastor hopes God intervenes before Haitian congregants lose immigration status

Pastor Maromy Samuel does not want members of his East Nashville congregation to uproot their lives and leave the U.S.

Due to a recent federal policy change, they are set to lose their legal immigration status and will have to return to Haiti.

But Samuel has hope that God will intervene.

"It is not a time for despair. It is a time for hope," said Samuel, who is a pastor at Nashville First Church of the Nazarene. "It is a time to know that God loves us and he will continue to provide for these families."

Samuel and a couple of other ministers who lead Haitian congregations in the city are advocating for a solution that allows their members to stay in Nashville longer. The pastors are working with immigrant rights advocates, reaching out to lawmakers and praying.

At least a half-dozen families who worship with Samuel are among the nearly 60,000 Haitians in the U.S. affected by the Department of Homeland Security's November decision to terminate the temporary protected status designation for Haiti. It ends July 22, 2019.

"It's a shock to the church and to the community," Samuel said. "People are now worried that they are going to be deported back to a country that is still in the rebuilding stage."

Under the Obama administration, Haitians were granted TPS after the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and displaced many more. Several extensions were granted in subsequent years.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke said in November that conditions have improved enough in Haiti for the TPS status to end. Advocates for extending the protections disagree.

"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. Haiti has also demonstrated a commitment to adequately prepare for when the country’s TPS designation is terminated," a Homeland Security news release stated.

TPS protects those who are eligible for the program from deportation and allows them to work in the U.S. The designation is a temporary benefit granted to countries experiencing extraordinary and temporary conditions, including natural disasters and civil war. Currently, 10 countries have the designation.

'It was like a nightmare'

Qualifying for TPS helped Jean Benjamin move his life forward in the U.S.

"It was very, very important," Benjamin said.

Benjamin, who helps broadcast the East Nashville congregation's worship services online, lived through the earthquake that ransacked his home country.

Nearly eight years later it is still hard to talk about as he sat in the balcony of the chapel decorated with poinsettias and Christmas trees on a Sunday in early December.

"It was like a nightmare," Benjamin said. "I lost a lot of my friends because I was in college and the college was collapsed, and most of them passed or died under the rubble."

Eight days after the deadly earthquake, he traveled to the U.S. on a visa. Benjamin accompanied his young American-born niece and nephew while their mother, who is a doctor, stayed in Haiti to help out. He applied for and received TPS.

He got a job and a driver's license, bought a car, paid taxes and went to school. Today the young father, who became a permanent resident in September through marriage, works as an interpreter and a caregiver.

While Benjamin no longer has the designation, he knows a few others who do.

"They are very nervous. That stressed them out a lot. They're still trying to figure out what to do," Benjamin said. "It's like restarting their life over again, and most of the people here support one or two family back home in Haiti."

Mission work in Haiti

Like many churches across the state, Nashville First Church of the Nazarene, which includes Anglo, African and Latino congregations, makes mission work in Haiti a priority. An upcoming mission trip to Haiti was announced during the Sunday morning service as members of the Haitian congregation filled the chapel's pews.

In May, then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly extended TPS six months, but warned that it would likely end due to progress made since the earthquake. By late November, Duke had announced termination of TPS for Haiti, offering an 18-month delay for an "orderly transition," a news release stated.

Duke also recently announced an end date for Nicaragua's TPS designation and warned that Honduras' designation could end after her recent six-month extension.

Advocates for an extension or even a path to permanent residency for Haitian TPS holders say Haiti is not ready to take back tens of thousands of its citizens.

The impoverished country, often plagued with political instability, needs more time to recover from the 2010 earthquake as well as subsequent hurricanes and a cholera outbreak.

An October report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supported that position, advocating for an 18-month extension. The report said Haiti isn't in a position to handle the return of tens of thousands of its citizens.

"Doing so would potentially destabilize the small nation, derail its path to recovery, and possibly harm those returned, particularly the uprooted children," the report concluded.

After the termination was announced, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called for Congress to find a solution for long-term TPS recipients, in part, so that families can stay together.

Hoping to stay together

Samuel and Pastor Michelet Geffrard, who leads Nashville First Haitian Baptist Church, also want another extension and a path to permanent residency for eligible families. Nearly eight years after the earthquake, many TPS holders have established their lives in the U.S. and integrated into the community.

"Even though they were on TPS, they were always hoping for something better," Geffrard said. "They contribute in the country, they invest, they have family,"

Four families from Samuel's congregation have already left Nashville for Canada, he said. Some from Geffrard's church have left the U.S., too, preferring to remove themselves, he said.

They're driven, in part, by fear and frustration about the uncertainty of their immigration status, Geffrard said.

The pastors are working with the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition to educate their communities and advocate for them.

And, they're continuing on with their lives as they hold fast to their faith in God's ability.

"We know that God is just and he is the God of the entire world. We know that he will provide for his people no matter what," Samuel said. "We encourage people to have faith no matter what and to have hope and to continue to try to do what they have to do."

A lot can happen in 18 months, he said.