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 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 U.S., and U.S. companies – including major American brands such as Butterball – need their immigrant workforce.

Jean Felix Petit-Frere, 63, is among the 1,500 Haitian immigrants who have infused Mount Olive, N.C., with new energy via a temporary status program created after the 2010 earthquake. They play a crucial role in the local economy, but the White House is proposing ending the program that brought the workers here.

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 Haitians moved to the area in summer 2010, lured by the prospect of work.

Butterball turkeys are one of Thanksgiving’s most iconic brands; 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.

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.”



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.

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.


To help deal with the crisis, the Obama administration modified the existing TPS program, which aimed to allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. if conditions in their home countries were unsafe. The change allowed Haitians living in the U.S. to temporarily stay and legally work.

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.


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, drawn by good pay at a company that processes “kodenn,” the Haitian Creole word for turkey.

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.”

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.

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.”

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