It was a catastrophe the like of which we have never before experienced in the Western Hemisphere. At 4:23 p.m. on January 12, 2010, a massive earthquake struck 15 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s populous capital city, registering a staggering 7.0 on the Richter scale.
“I saw houses destroyed by the thousands,” remembers Vénevoix Canéus. “Mutilated and crushed corpses were strewn about on the streets. We heard the screams of dying and injured people from all sides.”
There were so many dead—the death toll would eventually rise to an estimated 300,000—that the bodies had to be stacked on the streets, awaiting mass burials. Soon the putrid smell of decomposing human flesh had permeated every flattened inch of the city, as sick-making as it was inescapable.
The Canéus family, like so many other survivors, slept on mounds of rubble. There was little water, little food, and the thick, chalky dust made it nearly impossible to breathe.
Their youngest daughter, Hadassah, severely allergic to the dust, fell gravely ill, so much so that the family feared for her life. But Hadassah, a U.S. citizen, was eligible for the U.S. government evacuation of American citizens. Two weeks after the earthquake, the entire family was on board a U.S. military aircraft heading toward America; not long afterwards, the Department of Homeland Security designated Haiti for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
The Canéus family settled in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
They met Janet Horman, site attorney for Florida Justice for Our Neighbors, at a legal clinic at New Life United Methodist Mission, a church that ministers to Haitian immigrants in South Florida. Janet helped them prepare their initial TPS application and the subsequent ones that followed every 18 months.
Recovering from the trauma of the earthquake, the whole family adapted well to life in their new country. The children, in particular, are healthy and happy, successful in school, with bright futures ahead of them.
“This is one of the kindest, most gracious families I know,” says Janet. “The parents have worked hard to make a good life for their four children and to set the best example possible for them.”
TPS for Haitians is set to end on July 22, 2019. The current administration appears determined to send nearly 60,000 Haitians and their American children back to a country long considered the most destitute in the Western Hemisphere, and one still reeling from the devastation and chaos caused from a 7.0 earthquake, Hurricane Matthew, a cholera epidemic and widespread famine.
Meanwhile, on October 4, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen of California granted a preliminary injunction to stop the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from terminating TPS for immigrants from Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Sudan. The ruling affects over 300,000 people who, under the TPS program, have been allowed to live and work legally in the U.S. for decades after war or major natural disasters in their native countries.
It’s a hopeful sign, but an uncertain one, and it does little to appease the anxiety of the many Haitian TPS clients Florida JFON serves.
“Looking into their eyes is the hardest,” Janet admits. “We are hoping and praying that something occurs, something that gives them a bridge to permanent residency. But I can’t promise them anything.”
It’s terrifying to contemplate returning to a country in permanent crisis, where everything you knew—home, school, job, even your church—is gone. How much more terrifying would it be to return with your American-raised children?
Two of the Canéus’ four children—Hadassah and David—were born here and are U.S. citizens. If the worst happens, would their parents consider leaving them behind in Florida?
“No, no, no.” Vénevoix shakes his head vehemently. “Children are supposed to live with the parents,” he says firmly. “Children aren’t supposed to live in one country and parents in another.”
But July 22 is only months away. What will the family do if the administration holds firm to that date?
“I have no idea,” Vénevoix says frankly, “but I have faith in God that we will not be forced to leave the United States.”
He seems so certain, so unshakeable. He asks us to join him in prayer, to implore God for mercy and to plead with our government to do what is right and just.
“I believe that the American people are a nation of love and compassion,” he says slowly, as if reciting a familiar psalm. “They have proved it countless times in their history. I remain optimistic that the American president and all his collaborators will eventually come out in favor of all immigrants who wish to continue to live in this great nation and contribute to its advancement.”