Haitians Face Deportations After Reviving America's Turkey Town
By Damian Paletta
CROIX-DES-BOUQUETS, Haiti — In a proud but unfinished home on a dirt road where goats and children walk together, four generations of one family live under an earthquake-proof roof. Jean Felix Petit-Frere, a 63-year-old grandfather, has paid for the house’s every cinder block, walls that keep his wife of 37 years, two daughters, son-in-law, mother-in-law and granddaughter safe from the chaos and slums that surround them. But Petit-Frere has never set foot in the house. He lives in North Carolina, working at the world’s largest turkey-processing plant, Butterball’s facility in the small town of Mount Olive.
Petit-Frere is one of nearly 59,000 Haitians working under a temporary protected status program created for them after a 2010 earthquake triggered a humanitarian crisis. Like many of those immigrants, he sends a large portion of his wages home, a critical financial pipeline to an impoverished country where many children bathe in buckets and clean water is sold in bags. He may not be able to send money home much longer. President Trump has moved to end the protections for Haitian immigrants, arguing that temporary rules cannot be allowed to remain in place indefinitely. Along with plans to take away similar protections for certain people from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Sudan, Trump’s moves would lead to the deportation of 200,000 workers who have more than 200,000 U.S.-born children. Immigrants and advocacy groups are suing to block the deportations, and both they and the White House await a ruling in federal court. The administration says the program has run its course, arguing that temporary rules for Haitians cannot be allowed to remain in place indefinitely.
The ruling has major implications for thousands of Haitian immigrants and their newfound communities, as the two groups have become economically intertwined. Extended families in Haiti rely on wages from relatives in the United States, and U.S. companies — including major American brands like Butterball — need their immigrant workforce. Some of the Haitians work in big cities such as Miami, but others have transformed small towns like Mount Olive, which was breathed back to life after 1,500 Haitian immigrants moved to the area in the summer of 2010, lured by the prospect of work at Butterball. Butterball turkeys are one of Thanksgiving’s most recognizable brands, and each year the Mount Olive facility processes 500 million pounds. The arrival of workers such as Petit-Frere eight years ago reshaped the company and the town around it, filling vacant homes, creating new businesses and injecting money into local grocery stores and retailers that had seen incomes stagnate.
If these workers are sent home, local officials fear it could unwind much of the revival the area has seen in the past eight years. “If the Haitians and other immigrants suddenly went away, not just in Mount Olive but in eastern North Carolina, agriculture would suffer an amazingly hard blow,” said Charles Brown, the town manager who helped many of them acclimate there. “They’ve contributed to the economy. They’ve contributed to the labor market.” The consequences would fall even harder on the families left behind, including Petit-Frere’s wife, Rose Marie. Roughly 60 percent of all Haitians live on less than $2.41 a day, according to the World Bank. Less than 1 in 4 Haitian families has access to a toilet.
In an interview on the front porch of their incomplete house here, 15 miles northwest of the Haitian capital, Rose Marie said she misses her husband madly but is worried that if he comes home he won’t be able to find sustainable work in a country sliding further into disarray. He sends almost everything he can spare back to his wife and four children, often more than $1,000 a month. He even overdraws his bank account to stretch the money further. A new motorbike for his son Jean Caleb, who is one of the only people in this municipality to wear a helmet on the crowded roads. A refrigerator, pigs and goats for Rose Marie. And the new, three-bedroom house that has allowed much of his family to stay close. Rose Marie appears pinched between the bountiful life he has created for her on his $13-per-hour wage and the prospect of being back by his side but impoverished, like so many of her neighbors. Asked when she thinks she will see him again, she put her face in her hands. “I don’t know,” she says. “Only God knows." 'She was dying. I was just crying.'
Petit-Frere works a long late-day shift at Butterball, cleaning floors and equipment. It’s usually 2 a.m. before he returns home. By the time he goes to bed, another Haitian immigrant is waking up a few miles away. Elisena Joseph, also 63, trudges out each morning in thick coveralls and a winter hat. She makes more than $12 an hour cleaning turkey meat, eclipsing in 60 minutes what she earned in a week selling tomatoes and cabbage on the sidewalk in Port-au-Prince eight years ago. And it’s safe, far from the near-death experience that brought her to North Carolina.
On Jan. 12, 2010, Joseph was walking back from praying on a hillside outside Port-au-Prince when the earth shook beneath her. The basket of vegetables she had balanced on her head toppled to the ground. When she collected her food and looked up, everything was covered in dust. People were screaming. The single mother knew three of her children were home alone, and she rushed back to find them. When she arrived, she saw her daughter, Marie Rosie, lying on the ground unresponsive with a massive gash in the back of her head. A wall had fallen on her and smashed her skull. Joseph managed to get her 26-year-old daughter to a public square, but it was full of the injured and the dead. After two weeks of desperate pleas, Joseph and Marie Rosie were evacuated by the U.S. government to a hospital in Tampa. They never even had time to say goodbye to the rest of their family. “There was so much going on in my head,” she recalled. “She was dying. I was just crying. I couldn’t think of anything.”
Haiti’s 2010 earthquake was one of the worst natural disasters in the past 100 years, felling thousands of buildings in Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area. Reports of the quake’s death toll vary widely, as an exact count was impossible in the earthquake’s chaotic aftermath. But estimates reach as high as 300,000, and in Port-au-Prince, so many people died that relief workers constructed a mass grave on the outskirts of town, dumping hundreds of truckloads of bodies into a massive pit to limit the stench and spread of disease.
Even before the earthquake, Haiti was already considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The education system was uneven. Health conditions were very poor. Many people lacked clean running water and used communal pit latrines. In an effort to help deal with the crisis, the Obama administration modified the existing TPS program, which aimed to allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States if conditions in their home countries were unsafe. The change allowed Haitians living in the United States to temporarily stay and legally work. Administration officials said it was unsafe for them to return home to a country on the brink of humanitarian and economic collapse. Relief groups in Tampa helped Joseph apply while she waited for Marie Rosie to slowly recover.
Finding a job wasn’t easy. She didn’t speak English and couldn’t read or write, having received little education. Some Haitian friends in Florida told her about Butterball, and in 2012 she took a van up north. She soon had health insurance, a retirement account and money to help her five children and grandchildren. She has used her Butterball income to help two of her sons move to Chile, another country where Haitians have found economic opportunity. Now, just one of her five children still lives in Haiti, her eldest daughter Cecile Cherisca, 48. There are limits, though, to how far the money can stretch. Cherisca and her two children live in a small, one-room apartment in the middle of a densely populated section of Croix-des-Bouquets. Their apartment lacks running water.
Cherisca tries to earn more by selling things like ketchup packs and onions from a small table outside her home, but it often yields just $1 a day. She said she can barely cover other bills, including her daughter’s middle school tuition. They share a pit latrine with neighbors. She said she misses her mother but hopes she stays in the United States, predicting her mother would die given Haiti’s worsening condition and uncertain future. “This country is not going well,” she said. “It’s like living in evil.” Two thousand miles away, Joseph sleeps in a room that is roughly the same size as her daughter’s apartment. It’s in a rental house with a clean bathroom, electricity and a furnished kitchen. There’s a single picture frame on her bureau, with the family members they left behind and haven’t seen in eight years. Joseph sleeps on an inflatable mattress in a room she shares with Marie Rosie. Sometimes, at night, her daughter climbs down to join her.
'Why are we having all these people?' On Jan. 11, one day before the earthquake’s eight-year anniversary, Trump berated a group of lawmakers and senior advisers and said he wanted the special assistance for Haitians to end. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump asked, telling them he didn’t want any special provisions made for Haitians as part of a broader immigration deal under consideration.
Seven days later, the Department of Homeland Security published a notice formally terminating TPS for Haitian immigrants. Those with existing permits could work until July 22, 2019, but then they would have to leave. White House officials have said the program was meant to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake. It was not meant, they say, to remain ongoing while Haiti deals with its long-standing structural problems, which might never be resolved. “Yes, Haiti had horrible conditions before the earthquake, and those conditions aren’t much better after the earthquake,” then-Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told a congressional panel last year. “But the earthquake was why TPS was — was granted and — and that’s how I have to look at it.”
Because TPS was always meant to be temporary, it must frequently be renewed to prevent it from expiring. The Obama administration did this four times. The Trump administration has extended Haiti’s TPS program once, last year. A number of federal agencies have warned the White House that terminating the program could further destabilize Haiti. Some have even warned it could lead to more undocumented immigrants’ seeking to enter the United States. Sending thousands of immigrants back to unstable countries could create more desperation, prompting others to try to flee. “The return of a large number of citizens may place additional security stress upon the Haitian government, which is contending with rising crime and violence,” U.S. Southern Command, a division of the U.S. military, wrote in a memo to other agencies last year.
Less than two months after the White House formally announced it was ending TPS for Haitians, a group of immigrants filed a lawsuit. It alleged the Trump administration’s effort “was motivated by intentional race- and national-origin-based animus.” On Oct. 3, a federal judge ruled against the Trump administration, finding that the plaintiffs in the case “have established without dispute that local and national economies will be hurt if hundreds of thousands of TPS beneficiaries are uprooted and removed,” as the case would affect people from Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Sudan. The order temporarily blocked any deportation orders until a final decision is reached.
Even with the court ruling, the White House has not given any indication that it will soften its TPS approach. Trump has expressed frustration that his aides aren’t moving more quickly to deport people who he has said shouldn’t be in the United States. He has alleged the United States has been too accommodative to immigrants for years and that he wants to let in well-educated foreign workers, not people from poor countries like Haiti. He instead expressed a desire to see more immigrants from places like Norway.
Mount Olive is a small town in eastern North Carolina, with its economy closely intertwined with agriculture and food production. The motto on its municipal building reads “We value hometown tradition.” The town’s population was dwindling in 2010, but that all changed a few months after the earthquake in Haiti. Petit-Frere was in the group arriving in Mount Olive that summer, promised there was good pay at a company that processes “kodenn,” the Haitian Creole word for turkey. Karen Ingram, senior manager of human resources at Butterball’s Mount Olive facility, said Haitians were drawn to the company “through word of mouth,” not active recruiting. She said they provided translators and other services to try to help. But the sudden influx took some members of the town by surprise.
“We had people all over town we hadn’t seen before speaking a language none of us had ever heard,” said Brown, the Mount Olive town manager. Women walked back from the grocery store with bags on their heads. Newcomers crowded into houses because they didn’t know where else to go. Brown knew the immigrants were there to work at the Butterball plant, which was the largest turkey processing facility in the world and always faced high turnover. Charles Brown, Mount Olive’s town manager, helped the Haitians assimilate to their new lives in this small town and said they helped kick the local economy back to life. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post) The town is famous for being the hometown of the pickle company that shares its name, but Butterball has the labor-intensive plant that needs the most workers. And these jobs can be very difficult. One recent listing says certain workers must be able to lift “up to 57 pounds” and be able to work “with animal organs and animal feces.” “It’s tough, dirty work, and not everyone can do it,” Brown said.
Christa Leupen, a Butterball spokeswoman, said finding enough workers for the facility has long been a challenge. Even with the Haitian immigrants at the facility now, the company is seeking to hire 100 new people each week, in part to deal with turnover and demand. Asked about the Haitian workers, she said, “These folks have been working here for a long time and have been part of the family of the operation.” If they were all deported, especially at once, “that’s a significant blow.” Mount Olive had 4,700 people before the earthquake, Brown said, and its population grew by 30 percent when Haitians arrived that summer. He said it helped kick the local economy back to life. “We’ve got a Walmart, and they are buying big-screen televisions,” Brown said. “They are buying cars. They are buying groceries.” He said they would go together to the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store. Longtime residents would see Haitians spending money in their town every day. But few of the new workers spoke English or knew U.S. customs and laws. Brown needed to find a way to help them adapt.
That winter, the town received a complaint that there were 25 Haitians living in a single small home. Faced with the decision on whether to evict them, Brown told his aides to let them stay, fearing that putting them out in freezing temperatures could put lives at risk. But he knew changes were necessary. A few months later, Brown called a meeting with Butterball’s chief executive and several Mount Olive landlords, explaining that they would all benefit if more was done to help the new residents assimilate. Brown told the landlords that if they would take steps to fix up older, vacant homes, they would find dozens of eager tenants with good-paying jobs looking for a safe place to live.
This ultimately led to the opening of two Haitian groceries. One of them, God’s Grace Convenience Store, is run by an immigrant couple, selling Haitian “patties,” baked goods, and a range of vegetables and sodas that are popular in Port-au-Prince. Nowhere is the Haitian impact more on display than in the six churches they created in Mount Olive. These are loud, pulsating celebrations in old, packed buildings. At several of the assemblies, the guitars and drums are played so loud that the floor vibrates. Lyrics are sung in two languages: at times in English, but the congregations really come to life when they sing in Haitian Creole.
On a recent Sunday, Elisena Joseph sat by the window in the back of the Full Gospel Assembly of North Carolina, belting out a hymn with her eyes shut. After church, a small kitten with no collar was asleep on a dirty rug behind Jean Felix Petit-Frere’s home. Petit-Frere claimed no connection but later admitted he buys the cat food every so often because, as he is, it appears to be all alone. The kitten buried its head in his chest when he picked it up. He calls it Mimi. Petit-Frere rents a room in the small house on Mount Olive’s gritty southern edge. He said he’s settled, but there are no decorations, and his belongings are packed in a way that would make it easy to move out quickly. His room had the odor of wet laundry that won’t dry. His green Butterball shirt sat at the top of his pile of clothes. Even though he has lived in Mount Olive eight years, he wants to eventually return to Croix-des-Bouquets and be with his family in the home he has paid to construct. The house in Haiti isn’t complete yet. He still needs to pay for a toilet and sink, and the building needs tiles and windows. As much as he misses Rose Marie, he knows it’s too soon to return. “I feel my heart broken,” he said. “The Bible says you are supposed to stay close to your wife.”
Back in Haiti, Rose Marie sleeps down the hall from her daughters, in a bed with an elaborate, polished headboard Jean Felix carved for her before he left. She remembers the last time they were together, three years ago, when he came home for their son Obed’s wedding. She wore perfume and a green and white dress. He looked handsome in his suit and stayed for a week. The family was together again. When it was time to leave, she cried, uncertain when they would see each other again. He knew that if he left the United States one more time, he might be barred from ever returning, costing him his job at Butterball and the income it provided.
And conditions in Haiti were not improving. “Life can be very strange,” he told her as they embraced. “Life can make people be apart.” She tried to reassure him. “Even if we are apart, there is no separation between us,” she said. Above the doorway in their incomplete home, Jean Felix’s family carved a reference to one of their favorite biblical passages. Do not fear,” reads the section from the second book of Kings, “for those who are with us are more than those who are with them."