Congregants sing during Sunday services at La Mission Chretenne D'Haiti,… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
For more than four hours Sunday, the pleas and prayers filled La Mission Chretenne D'Haiti, a Pentecostal storefront church on West Adams Boulevard that ministers to mostly Haitian immigrants and their children.
Samuel Baptiste, a 37-year-old electronics worker, wondered how to get his fiancee to the United States and away from their homeland, which was devastated by the recent earthquake. Nadia Caton fretted that her mother, who arrived in Los Angeles from Haiti on Saturday with her year-old son, needed to find a way to extend her month-long visa. And Lissage Modeus, a 49-year-old security worker, wanted to know whether his cousin, who is currently in immigration detention, would be deported to the Caribbean island nation.
Leading the prayers was the Rev. Jean-Renaud Guillaume, the church's founder and pastor. But fielding the myriad immigration questions was Jane Arellano, Los Angeles district director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
In her first appearance before the Los Angeles Haitian community, Arellano announced that Haitian visitors were now eligible to apply to extend their stays in the United States by 18 months. The "temporary protected status," granted to nationals of Haiti last week by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, allows the extended stays so people do not have to return to unsafe conditions, such as wars or natural disasters.
Besides Haiti, the government has extended the protected status to nationals of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan.
To qualify, Haitians must have been in the United States on or before Jan. 12 and meet all immigrant admissibility requirements, such as having no criminal record. But Haitians who are in custody for civil immigration violations can also apply for the protected status, Arellano said.
Arellano also told the crowd that U.S. immigration officials have been instructed to expedite all Haiti-related immigration petitions and to "look favorably" on requests to extend visas, change immigration status or waive the $470 in fees to apply for temporary protected status, work authorization and to furnish biometric data.
"We invited ourselves here to see if there is anything we can do to provide assistance," Arellano said. "It is beyond anybody's control what happened."
U.S. officials expect as many as 200,000 Haitians to be eligible for temporary protected status, most of them in Miami and New York. The Haitian community in Los Angeles numbers about 4,000, according to Guillaume, who came to Los Angeles from Haiti via Canada to start his church a decade ago.
The church, situated near auto repair shops, a beauty salon and a massage parlor near West Adams Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, features the flags of Haiti and the United States. In a trilingual service of English, French and Haitian Creole, congregants shook tambourines and sang songs punctuated with upbeat Caribbean rhythms one moment, then fell to their knees in silent prayer another.
"I see your faces; they are very sad," Guillaume told them. "I know that you have lost family members in Haiti. But when you have Jesus in you, he will comfort you."
After the two-hour service, Arellano took the podium as her staff member Rico Cabrera passed out immigration forms and other information about the temporary protected status.
Congregants asked questions about how to get loved ones out of the earthquake wreckage into the safety of the United States.
One woman told Arellano that she had applied to bring her mother and siblings here even before the earthquake and wanted to know how to expedite their cases now that they were homeless.
Another wanted to know how to adopt orphans from Haiti.
Baptiste, the electronics worker, said that U.S. immigration officials had approved his request to bring his fiancee to the United States to marry him but that consular officials in Haiti refused to give her a visa. And Idovic Decoline told Arellano that he lost seven family members in the quake and that other relatives "have no house, no food, no water, no nothing." What could they do to help?
In most cases, Arellano invited the questioner to meet with immigration officials about their cases. She offered to staff her office on the weekends if the church wanted to send congregants.
And Arellano, who last year won the immigration agency's top honors for public service, told the congregants they need not necessarily wait for an appointment but could just come by her office for help.
"I've already put the word out to my staff that anybody coming with questions about Haiti, bring them in," she said.