Music pulses through the floor.
Down rows of fabric-lined chairs, it throbs in the congregants’ chests, meeting their voices and eyes pinched shut. As morning light leaks from a single window peaking from its curtain, the struggles of a nation seem to charge air inside one Dover church.
The Haitian Baptist service, tucked inside HEIM Church’s second floor, stretches into an October day. Some gloved hands hold prayer books, others children closer.
A visiting pastor steps to the podium.
“Everyone knows about the earthquake that happened in Haiti,” Roosevelt Toussaint says into the microphone, his words of Haitian Creole filling the small chapel fallen silent.
“It always touches my heart,” continues the senior pastor who has traveled over 50 miles north from Salisbury, Maryland. “Even if you are an American citizen, you are also Haitian. Even if you have a job in the United States, you are also Haitian. I’ve been here for a long time. My wife is American. I look like I could be American, but when I open my mouth — they know I’m not.”
The 67-year-old didn’t come to preach. Leading a newly opened development center for a bolstering Haitian population on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he hoped to engage a community now stretched across the Delmarva peninsula.
“I’d like you to help us.”
East Coast Haitian communities, from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to southern Delaware, are organizing support for a homeland rattled by crisis, while still coping with tragedy themselves.
A pastor. A congregation. A real estate investor. An immigration outfit. Community members are helping hundreds of their own seek resources and maneuver limited immigration options.
Their homegrown efforts continue, as many in late summer watched nearly 15,000 Haitian migrants arrive at the Mexico-Texas border in search of refuge. Thousands were deported. Their efforts continue as community members watch an evacuation mission conclude in Afghanistan, fixating international attention on a U.S.-led resettlement effort they don’t recognize.
Efforts continue now, as violence, kidnappings and gang activity command a homeland over 1,000 miles away — casting doubt on how resources will reach those in need, while more flee the wreckage.
In the U.S., advocate organizations continue to urge legislative change to the immigration system and Temporary Protective Status program, aiming to allow Haitian nationals more permanency.
“We don’t have a solution; we have Band-Aids for now,” said Guerline Jozef, co-founder and executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, speaking to limited protection available to Haitians fleeing their country. “We must do what needs to be done until we get the full protection for folks — providing response to the humanitarian supports needed right now.”
The phones won’t stop ringing.
Toussaint has absorbed images of sizable towns, remote villages and homes damaged or collapsed across Haiti’s southwestern peninsula. Hundreds of schools were destroyed, over 2,000 people killed, thousands more badly injured, tens of thousands left homeless after an Aug. 14 earthquake.
Long-standing political instability had already intensified following the assassination of the nation’s president, Jovenel Moïse, in July. All the upheaval came just 11 years after the disastrous earthquake of 2010.
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Eyes cast down on his conference table, Toussaint remembers some members of his own peninsula community acting on desperation.
“If you know that your mom or your dad is affected by the earthquake … sometimes you’re going to act out of instinct,” he says. “ ‘If I can just be there for them. I may not be able to do much, but if I can just be there.’ “
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“That’s where we are hurting the most,” continues the president of the Haitian Development Center of Delmarva – the office around him officially opened in May. “We know that we would like to go over there, but because of the lack of security, we cannot.”
Fielding the daily call stream, he knows the answer in how to help would never come by impulse.
“I tell them, ‘Yes, we are,’ but we cannot really help every individual — we’ve got to do it as a whole.”
The development center partnered with Rebirth, a nonprofit committed to supporting the Haitian community on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore, to form a coalition. Regional leaders began meeting weekly, organizing a Delmarva Haiti’s Relief Fund, set to bring financial assistance, resources and more to Haiti this fall. The organizations have sought donations for tents, medical supplies, back-to-school supplies and more from the community they anchor.
People have heard these calls before.
“Most of the time, organizations that went over there, we don’t know what they did,” Toussaint says, calling back to high-profile investigations of misused relief funds after the 2010 earthquake. “The people know us. It will be a lot easier for them to trust us with their funds, with the money in their supplies.
“Our relationship with the people will make a big difference. That difference is why we do it.”
The pastor knows much of his fellow community, like himself, still have deep family ties to Haiti.
The United States shares its own history intertwined with the Caribbean nation. It includes U.S. intervention in Haiti in 1915 to prevent Germany from taking hold, and the U.S. Marines occupied Haiti by 1934, overseeing public works, tax collection, treasury management and the development of Haiti’s first professional military force.
The first democratic leadership structure formed in the country would be later followed by a string of coups. Political unrest stretched into the 1990s, and by 2021 a presidential assassination has now left a government in shambles. Natural disaster impacts from 2010 have only been met with more like it.
On Delmarva, the coalition continues to stockpile donations, aiming to coordinate travel to Haiti in the coming months. A watchful eye on security conditions in the country shows threats to their November distribution.
“There’s always something. Always tragedy,” Toussaint says slowly. “If it’s not earthquake, it’s a hurricane. If it’s not hurricane, it is overthrowing the president. There’s always something — but through it all, the Haitian has always been strong.”
Samson Orneus has trouble sleeping.
Watching news from the U.S. border — fellow Haitian people living under a bridge, thousands rounded up to be sent back to a nation most hadn’t seen in years, ongoing discord — the real estate investor in Salisbury can hardly take it.
“Just too much for my gut to handle,” says the husband and father who came to Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1991.
From a tidy desk and third-floor office on Salisbury’s Main Street, Orneus balances four businesses. His newest addition, echoing previous experience with rentals, is Two Cousins Investment Property.
Lately, however, clients have ballooned to another outfit: WOLC Immigration Services.
“You got people coming in as of yesterday, you got people that still come in, because those people that crossed the border recently, options are very limited for them,” Orneus says one October afternoon. “Our clients are growing a lot for this year, so that’s a big change. The percentage is probably a rise by 60%.”
He attributes most of the swell to the Biden administration and its extension of temporary protections.
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Temporary Protected Status, which the administration officially extended after the presidential assassination, allows for Haitian people to apply for protection through February 2023. The update affected an estimated 155,000 people who could apply or reapply for the protection first granted in 2010, according to the federal notice from the Department of Homeland Security. Haitian nationals now qualify if they entered the U.S. before July 29.
The measure is given to those who have seen “extraordinary and temporary conditions,” like violence, corruption or disaster, according to the Department of Homeland Security, allowing them to live and seek work permits.
But, it remains temporary.
“In conversations about protection, it’s a humanitarian form of relief,” explained Karla McKanders, an expert on immigration, race and the administrative state and clinical professor of law in Vanderbilt Law School.
Placing it in immigration system context, the legal clinic director described three main ways to immigrate to the United States on a permanent basis — family, employment, and humanitarian measures.
“There are humanitarian forms of relief that allow me to stay here permanently. Temporary protected status is not one of those things,” she said. “The expectation is that the individual will return to their country of origin. And I think the conversation that many are having right now is the ways in which politics impact who is given what type of protection.”
The status and its extension — marked about half a month before the 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti — provides relief to many families. Hundreds applied in a single month in Salisbury alone, according to Orneus. But a key misconception of TPS is the hope that it leads to a pathway to lawful permanent residence.
Many who applied this summer may have lived undocumented in the U.S. after long journeys away from Haiti. Others reapplied, having lived in the country over a decade, forming lives and bonds built on temporary status alone.
Backlog strains the entire process, Orneus says, so all of his clients have yet to receive more than a receipt.
Those arriving too late for the temporary protective deadline, or hoping to seek relief that could allow them stable residence, must apply for asylum — a lengthy, difficult process particularly for Haitian nationals, according to McKanders.
“There’s a level of desperation that still exists. Individuals are fleeing, and they might fit under the category of a refugee,” she said. “However, access has been kind of limited to the asylum system for Haitian nationals.”
The expert described skepticism of seeking asylum, as applicants must navigate complicated immigration law. An individual must show they’re unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin due to experience of “persecution,” which could be based on race, religion, political opinion or social group.
“Randomized violence,” she said, is not considered connected to persecution. Additionally, even if an applicant meets all credibility standards, the process remains discretionary on the part of immigration judges.
Options like humanitarian parole or special immigrant visas, extended in large part to the refugees coming from Afghanistan, are not within reach. A Haitian Family Reunification Parole program has been plagued with yearslong backlog in visa processing, halted during the pandemic.
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“Even when there is no option for somebody, we have to find a way,” Orneus said of the immigration office in Salisbury, helping people begin applying for asylum if they might qualify.
“When they come, we feel the pain we bear inside, but on our face, we cannot really show it. We have to encourage them. We have to really support them. We have to advise them, so that way they can keep on going.”
Haitian Bridge Alliance head Guerline Jozef, having fueled the national push for temporary protective status extension, knows it leaves many of her people “in limbo.” The advocate says she will continue her organization’s effort to see temporary protective status reevaluated.
But for now, she sees immediate need fill communities across the United States.
“We really need everyone to be able to make this work,” she says.
“People need food; they need lodging; they need schooling; they need education; they need all of those things. How can we make sure that we come together to provide that support for them? In Salisbury; in Brooklyn; in Lynn, Massachusetts; in Miami, Florida — how do we make sure the community thrives around them?”
Tucked into his third-floor office, a quiet pause from travel and outreach, Pastor Toussaint says he knows his Delmarva community is growing strong.
“We are in the United States. We have learned a better way of living,” he said, peering over his glasses. “I may not be able to save Haiti — but we can really make an impact for these people over here, let them see life in a different way. Then they might be able to make a difference.”
Kelly Powers is a culture reporter for the How We Live team — covering race, culture and identity for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (443) 694-0770, and follow her on Twitter @kpowers01.