Originally Published in The Miami Herald
Opinion by Edwidge Danticat - November 1, 2020
I have never seen a child work so hard to keep her family together. For the past four years, Christina Ponthieux, 13, has been addressing rallies, attending congressional briefings and press conferences, writing open letters and recording videos addressed to elected officials — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump.
Christina is one of 273,000 U.S.-born children who could be separated from their parents, should Trump win reelection and proceed to terminate Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, which has been available since 1990, to immigrants who are unable to return to their countries of origin, because of armed conflicts, environmental disasters, epidemics or other extraordinary circumstances.
In 2010, after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed more than 300.000 Haitians and left a million and a half without homes, the Obama administration granted Temporary Protected Status to 50,000 Haitians who were already living in the United States, including Christina’s parents.
Christina first learned of her parents’ status when she was 9, while attending a meeting about TPS with her father at Family Action Network Movement (FANM), a community organization that’s been on the forefront of TPS advocacy for years.
“Here I am, 9 years old, and I realize that my parents can be separated from me at any time,” she recalled during a phone conversation with her and her dad recently. “I realized that lots of kids might also lose their parents. I felt I had to do something.”
She spoke at her first press conference after that meeting, and soon became the co-chair of FANM’s Children for Family Reunification initiative. She stepped up her activism in 2017, when the Trump administration first announced that it would terminate TPS. In a video directly addressing the president, she pleaded with him to reconsider, making a case for a permanent solution that she calls PPS, Permanent Protected Status.
TPS recipients, Christina told Trump, have deep roots in their communities, pay billions of dollars in taxes, and contribute to the social, economic, and political fabric of the United States, and what they want more than anything is a safe place to raise their children. Christina’s public appeals, at times, remind me of the heartbreaking videos many of us have seen, of 11-year-old Magdalena Gomez Gregorio, for example, who, in August 2019 begged Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to release her parents, after they had been taken into custody at a food processing plant in Mississippi.
“Government, please show some heart,” the girl tearfully pleaded. “Let my parents be free.”
Both Christina and Magdalena echo the wails of the more recently arrived migrant children who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and have been kept in cages, and iceboxes, some never to see their parents again.
These acts of horrendous cruelty, among countless others, are detailed in a newly released report by the nonprofit law firm and advocacy group Americans for Immigrant Justice and have been described by the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics as torture.
One of the many lessons Christina says she has learned over the past four years is that young people must speak up and participate in public discourse, especially if they are directly affected.
“My generation has a voice,” she says emphatically. “And hopefully people will listen.”
Where she does not yet have a voice is at the polls. FANM Executive Director Marleine Bastien and attorney Ira Kurzban, the lead lawyer in Saget v. Trump, a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s decision to terminate TPS for Haitians, recently wrote in The Herald that the fate of families like Christina’s and thousands of others will possibly be decided by voters on Tuesday.
Vanessa Joseph, an immigration attorney, and chairwoman for Haitian-American Voters Empowerment Coalition, agrees.
“Those of us who can vote are also voting for the hundreds and thousands of people in our communities who cannot,” she says. “We are voting for those who are growing and cooking our food. We are voting for those who are teaching in our schools and taking care of our children. We are voting for those who are looking after our elders and taking care of the sick. “
I asked Christina what she would say to the president if she were to address him again on video, like she did three years ago.
“I would ask him a couple of questions,” she said. “Are you going to keep separating families by deporting parents? Or are you going to force them to take their children into danger?”
She recalls candidate Trump coming to Little Haiti in 2016 and promising Haitians that he would be their greatest champion. After he was elected, he reportedly called Haiti a “shithole country” and said that all Haitians have AIDS. His administration also ended the Haitian Family Reunification Parole program and removed Haitifrom the list of countries whose citizens can participate in H-2A and H-2B work visa programs.
I asked Christina what she would say to former Vice President Joe Biden if she had a moment with him. Perhaps as a caveat against empty campaign promises, she said that she would ask him to “keep his word.”
During a recent campaign stop in Little Haiti, Biden said that if he were elected, TPS would be “guaranteed”. His campaign website promises immigration reform and a path to citizenship for those who have built lives here.
We hope that, if elected, he will indeed keep his word.
This weekend, Christina and her family will take part in several Get Out The Vote and Souls the Polls events to encourage neighbors and friends to vote, not just for the 411,000 current TPS holders across the United States, but also for the 800,000 DREAMers and the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who are unable to cast ballots.
“I can’t vote because of my age,” Christina told me, “and “my parents can’t vote because of their immigration status. So I am asking everyone to be my vote. Even if you don’t feel like voting, please do it for families like mine. Do it for the children. Do it for our parents. Be our voice. Be our vote.”
Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American writer living in Miami. She is the author of several books, including “Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation.”