Why my faith compels me to support protective status for Haitians fleeing disaster

Aerial view of damaged buildings near Jeremie on Oct. 12, 2016, in western Haiti. Roughly 400,000 people are believed to live in the area around Jeremie. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

(RNS) As a Christian, I’m called by my faith to stand with the vulnerable and love my neighbor. As president of Disciples Home Missions, I am grateful to demonstrate these values in my daily life and weekly ministries throughout the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S.

But it is also because of those values that I am deeply disturbed by recent hateful and xenophobic sentiment espoused by my fellow Christians and Americans. Such sentiment sends an unwelcoming and mean-spirited message of exclusion to refugee families fleeing violence and persecution.

The latest example of this is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ recommendation to permanently end the Temporary Protected Status for 58,000 Haitians in January 2018, instead of renewing it for another 18 months after it expires in July.

The U.S. has granted TPS to foreign nationals since 1990 as a form of humanitarian relief that permits certain individuals to remain in the U.S. and work when it is unsafe to return home.

These could be people impacted by natural disasters. It could also apply to people who are already in another country when a disaster hits their country of origin. Or it could be people who are then impeded in their ability to return home due to dangerous or life-threatening conditions.

In 2010, a terrible earthquake struck Haiti that caused the deaths of over 100,000 people and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. The U.S. granted TPS to 58,000 Haitians to live in safety and rebuild their lives, work and support family members still in Haiti.

Unfortunately, the catastrophic impacts of last year’s Hurricane Matthew impeded Haiti’s recovery. Tens of thousands of homes and schools were destroyed, as well as agricultural crops and livestock, which resulted in widespread food insecurity and exacerbated the cholera epidemic – already the worst in the world.

As the Atlantic hurricane season begins next month, we know the country is not safe for Haitians to return to.

The protected status for Haitians is slated to expire on July 22, and the Department of Homeland Security is currently considering whether to extend it.

To let it expire would be a great loss for our nation. Haitians with TPS work as nurses, business owners and teachers; they buy homes, purchase life and health insurance, raise U.S. citizen children; care for their elderly family members and send money to family back in Haiti.

Local Haitians plunder a bocked Samaritan’s Purse box truck carrying humanitarian supplies west of Jeremie, Haiti, early Oct. 13, 2016. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

They have served for years in vibrant ministries across the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and especially in New York, New Jersey, Florida, California, Indiana, Maryland and Connecticut. It has been my great pleasure to join their communities for theological trainings and worship.

To turn our backs on these vulnerable Haitians we pledged to welcome would place considerable burdens on the country as it struggles to recover. It would put Haitians who previously resided in America at risk for kidnapping, disease and hunger upon their return to their home country.

To deport them also stands opposite to my beliefs as a Christian.

Our faith calls on us to show mercy and hospitality to those fleeing persecution.

“Bring water to the thirsty, meet the fugitive with bread. … For they have fled from the swords, from the drawn sword, from the bent bow, and from the stress of battle,”  (Isaiah 21:14-15).

My faith calls me to do everything in my power to meet our Haitian refugees with the same welcome our biblical ancestors, who were once refugees, received. We cannot call ourselves Christian and reject the most vulnerable among us.

This is why I joined over 400 faith leaders and organizations in calling on Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to extend the TPS status for Haiti.

As Americans, we live in a country built in part by the hard work and determination of generations of immigrants and refugees — many of whom were our ancestors. Our government agencies must remember these lessons and act with compassion, instead of fear or malice, as they deal with the largest global refugee crisis in history.

Continue the TPS program for Haitians, and extend it for another 18 months. It is the American and Christian thing to do — and would honor the deep love I feel for the people of Haiti.

(The Rev. Ronald J. Degges is president of the Disciples Home Missions, Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, in the U.S. and Canada)

About the author

Ronald J. Degges


Click here to post a comment

  • I absolutely agree with the sentiments shared in this piece. Haiti has to be one of the most unhappily situated places on earth, geologically and meteorologically speaking. Given the efforts we have made on behalf of other people coming from half a world away, our near neighbors the Haitians are certainly equally deserving of our compassion and largesse.

  • It is not unhappily situated. Look at the Dominican Republic, which shares the island with Haiti and you see a stark contrast. Haiti has been mismanaged from the beginning and is the cause of its woes. Satellite images show a striking demarcation at the border – Haiti has denuded its lands of the lush tropical forests and is more vulnerable to mudslides and flooding. Corrupt politicians have turned it into a hell hole.

  • No doubt, but both nations have suffered considerably and often from the vicissitudes of nature, Haiti’s sufferings no doubt exacerbated by corruption and activities you cite.