Reaching Haitian immigrants
May 27, 2011
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – In a small storefront beside the First Haitian Church of the Brethren on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) East Coast immigration counselor Sara Mateo-Deo, of Elmont, N.Y., leans toward client Emmanuel Limonta, flipping through the thick sheaf of documents he has brought.
As Mateo-Deo and Limonta confer in Spanish, Sylvia Shirk, pastor of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, uses her Haitian Creole to interview a woman who wants to bring her husband to New York from Haiti. A law graduate working for Lutheran Social Services, Meredith Fortin, works with a third client in French.
Navigating the process to stay legally in the United States can be complex – whether in figuring out what options might work best for a particular immigrant, determining the many documents required for each step of the process, or knowing how to address problems.
As MCC continues a major earthquake response in Haiti and works to help people rebuild their houses and livelihoods without leaving home, MCC East Coast also strives to answer God’s call to welcome newcomers and strangers by supporting Mateo-Deo and Shirk.
Each Thursday, the two women meet with Haitian immigrants at this site in Brooklyn. Under the supervision of Fortin and an attorney from Lutheran Social Services, Mateo-Deo and Shirk see clients who are applying for citizenship, residency or permission to work legally in the U.S.
With the MCC-supported workers handling initial interviews, “it doubles the amount of clients we can see,” said Fortin. “It’s a great team to have for the client.”
In the process, Mateo-Deo and Shirk have gotten a firsthand look at the combined effect of immigration and the earthquake on New York’s long-established Haitian population.
“The previous scenario was that many people were permanent residents and had a job here and sent money home,” Shirk said. “They built a house in Port-au-Prince, and living in that house were their relatives, sometimes their children.”
As Haiti’s capital city was devastated, homes destroyed and many people forced to live on the streets, parents and relatives – many of whom were saving up money to bring children to the U.S. anyway – frantically searched for ways to make that happen quickly, Shirk noted.
Marie Denise Milord, a member of the First Haitian Church of the Brethren who had come to New York two years ago, was among these.
Days after the earthquake, she began coming to the center asking for help getting her youngest children to New York quickly. Her home in Haiti could not be lived in. Her youngest son, then 10, has several disabilities and didn’t manage the changes well after the quake. He lost weight and became extremely anxious.
Shirk translated some of Milord’s documents from Haitian Creole into English, a critical part of the application process. Last July, Milord, who works as a home health care aide, was able to bring her son and her 13-year-old daughter to New York.
“It was God who provided for them to be able to come without my having to pay,” Milord said. “It was really a gift from God.”
However, Shirk and Mateo-Deo note that each immigrant’s situation is different. In some cases, people have no legal way to remain in the U.S.
“It’s sad when you have to tell people there’s no solution,” said Mateo-Deo, who began as an MCC East Coast worker in April 2010. “I expected it to be, yes, everybody’s going to have a solution, and I’ll be able to help them somehow. That’s not always the case.”
Shirk recalled a woman who had raised a niece from childhood and wanted to keep her in New York after the earthquake, fearing for her safety in the confusion of Haiti’s reconstruction. But she wasn’t the girl’s guardian and had no legal way to keep her in the U.S.
“Some of it is so complicated, and it results in family tragedies,” Shirk said.
The MCC U.S. Washington Office warns that, with the U.S. government resuming deportations to Haiti, those tragedies may continue to mount.
After the earthquake, the U.S. stopped deporting Haitians who had been detained in the U.S. through the justice system or because of immigration issues. These deportations – which involve transferring people from U.S. facilities to be held in Haitian prisons in often-harsh conditions – resumed in January 2011, then were halted after a prisoner died of cholera-like symptoms in a Port-au-Prince prison.
Deportations resumed in April. In a single day in May, Shirk worked with two clients facing deportation issues. The Washington Office is urging Anabaptists to write to President Barack Obama, asking that deportations cease. (Read more below.)
No matter the client’s situation, Mateo-Deo and Shirk offer what assistance they can, ministering to clients even as they diligently sort through questions of paperwork.
“We are called to serve. We are called to bring peace and spread the name of Jesus around,” said Mateo-Deo, a member of Mennonite Evangelistic Tabernacle in Queens, N.Y. “When they see the love we have for them and truly caring for their situation, whether we can help them or not, I think they see that.”
The MCC U.S. Washington Office is urging that Anabaptists and others consider contacting lawmakers to ask that deportations of Haitian immigrants cease until conditions in Haiti improve.
After the earthquake, the U.S. stopped deporting Haitians who had been detained in the U.S. through the justice system or because of immigration issues. These deportations – which involve transferring people from U.S. facilities to be held in Haitian prisons in often-harsh conditions – resumed in 2011.
“Deportations divert resources from Haiti’s recovery effort and jeopardize the lives of those returned to the country,” reports a Washington Office action alert. It states that homelessness and political instability are on the rise in Haiti, while access to social services is declining and a cholera outbreak has exacerbated the situation.
The alert urges people to write to President Barack Obama, asking that deportations cease. Learn more at washington.mcc.org/haitideportations .
Mennonite Central Committee: Relief, development and peace in the name of Christ