Kneeling in prayer, evangelist Oliver Charmelus pleaded for God's mercy on the 58,000 undocumented Haitians in the United States, including several thousand in the Philadelphia region, who have lived here legally under humanitarian protection granted after an earthquake devastated their homeland in 2010.
But that soon could end.
Their "temporary protected status," which had been extended in 18-month intervals, will expire July 22. An announcement about what comes next is expected Tuesday. This time, Haitians fear, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly will say they must return to their Caribbean island nation or become deportable starting next January.
At First Haitian Church of God of Prophecy in West Oak Lane last Saturday, women in silky hair wraps upturned their palms and raised their voices whenever Charmelus mentioned the threat to "TPS."
"I have people in the church who have houses, mortgages, kids in school, brand-new cars they are making payments on. They are paying taxes, helping the economy. Sending them back would be disastrous," the Rev. Frantz Ulysse said. His congregation of 150 is trying to build a nursing home in Haiti, where the earthquake killed 300,000 people and displaced 1.5 million, and where many people still live in tents.
"I visit two or three times a year, and every time I go, it's worse," Ulysse said. "How are these people going to survive if they are sent back? There are no jobs."
A January 2017 U.N. report found 55,000 people still living in unsanitary, makeshift camps.
In addition to chronic problems exacerbated by the quake, Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is struggling with a cholera epidemic. In October, a hurricane killed 1,000 people. Medical care is insufficient, food is short.
Supporters of Haitians on TPS are not holding out for them to stay indefinitely, or until Haiti achieves the unreachable living standard of a prosperous vacation mecca. They do say forcing Haitians back to a homeland still ravaged by the natural disaster would be inhumane.
In March, a bipartisan group of lawmakers made that argument in a letter to Kelly asking him to extend Haitian TPS.
Nonetheless, in April, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services James McCament told the Trump administration that conditions in the country had improved enough to end TPS for Haitians.
On Wednesday, with the deadline for a decision fast approaching, 13 mayors, including Mayor Kenney, sent a letter to Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging them not to send Haitians back "to dangerous and unlivable conditions."
"Recognizing the perilous circumstances" that persist, wrote Kenney, extending TPS is in the best interest of Philadelphia "so that families can remain together."
Enacted in 1990, TPS allows the U.S. government to designate a foreign country for temporary protection if conditions prevent the country's nationals from returning safely or, in certain circumstances, if the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately. In addition to Haiti, a dozen countries have the designation.
By definition, TPS is not supposed to be permanent. But the problem, says lawyer Thomas Griffin, is that while immigrants are here, their roots are growing. He has a dozen clients with TPS and a personal connection to Haiti, where he cofounded a medical clinic in the poorest slum, Cite Soleil. He sees "zero chance" that Haitians will go home voluntarily.
"You're establishing relations with your community, relations at work. You're paying taxes, having kids, and your roots are getting deeper," Griffin said. "That's part of being a human being. We're dynamic beings, right? So things start to happen. And then we rip it out from under them."
Of an estimated 606,000 people born in Haiti and now living in America, including about 7,500 in Philadelphia, about half are naturalized U.S. citizens. An estimated 75,000 to 100,000 are in the United States illegally. Of those, about 58,000 qualified for TPS.
About three dozen Haitian immigrants dodged Saturday's heavy rain to come to the Church of God of Prophecy for prayers and a briefing on their limited legal options.
"The narrative that is going around is that immigrants take, take, take. No one is interested in what you give, what you do, what you contribute," said Ayodele Gansallo, a staff attorney with HIAS Pennsylvania, an advocacy group that provides legal and resettlement services to low-income immigrants.
"This is a country that has been built on the sweat of immigrants, including you," she said, encouraging them to lobby elected officials. "You have a voice, and you need to use it. Many immigrants do work that Americans just don't want to do. That's just a fact. If TPS is ended, the loss of the work that you do will be felt by this country."
Gilda Jean-Louis, of the Elise Joseph Foundation, a nonprofit support center for Haitian families in the Philadelphia area, told congregants that Haitian Flag Day will be celebrated this year with a ceremonial raising of Haiti's blue-and-red banner outside City Hall at 11:30 a.m. Thursday. "You are not too few for God to use you to spread the word," she said, urging a large turnout to demand that TPS be renewed.
In an interview after church, Bricema Laude, 40, said his wife, Nadege, has TPS and is "very scared" about their future. He works as a meat cutter. She works for a car-parts manufacturer. They live in Northeast Philadelphia, pay their taxes, he said, and want desperately to stay.
Two days earlier, at a law office in Center City, Evelyne, 49, who did not want her last name published for fear of deportation if TPS is terminated, said, "Without the TPS, I can't do nothing."
Despite a failed asylum claim and court order that she leave the U.S., Evelyne was living in Mount Airy with her boyfriend, their two U.S.-born daughters, and her U.S.-born son from a previous relationship when the earthquake struck on Jan. 12, 2010. A wall toppled on her 68-year-old mother, crushing one hip. Two months later, after two surgeries, she died.
Since then, said Evelyne, who works as a home health aide, she has been sending about $3,000 a year in cash, food, and clothing to help support the families of her five siblings, only one of whom has a job.
"My aunt is old. When she needs to change her glasses or visit the doctor, I pay. My sister? I send clothes and shoes for her kids. My brother, too. Every three months I send a drum container. … You know what it is like there, so sometimes you eat less to help them."
The World Bank estimates that remittances to Haiti from all U.S. sources equal about $1 billion a year.
The cholera epidemic that has killed more than 10,000 people touched Evelyne's family, too, after her sister contracted the disease and nearly died.
"The situation in Haiti, despite what some right-wingers are saying, is deplorable, it's horrible," said Evelyne's lawyer, Phyllis Forman. "It's cholera, it's hurricanes, it's one crisis after another that they never pull back from.
"What is the point of taking away TPS? Haiti needs it. And America needs the work they do. The service industry is filled with Haitians -- parking cars at restaurants, working in hotels, health care."
Bishop Missel Josiaste, president of the Haitian Clergy of Philadelphia, said in this difficult time he tells parishioners to keep faith.
"We are just praying," he said. "We believe God changes hearts. That's our only option right now."