Almost a year after Hurricane Hanna slammed into Haiti, the memory stops her cold.
Gracieuse Marius, a nurse, had huddled inside until the floodwaters subsided in the city of Gonaives, then she raced into the streets to find someone to save. Instead, she was confronted with silence: Cars, trees, and dead animals floated in the water. She still cannot bring herself to talk about the children.
Overwhelmed, she left Haiti for the United States. Now she is adding her voice to a growing nationwide chorus urging the United States to stop deporting Haitian immigrants, at least until their nation can recover from four devastating hurricanes last year and years of political and economic turmoil.
Haiti is one of the least-developed countries in the hemisphere, and one of the poorest in the world, according to the US State Department. Six of Marius's relatives are here illegally and facing deportation, among more than 32,000 illegal Haitian immigrants nationwide and 2,000 to 3,000 in Massachusetts.
"If they are sent back, some of them will die," the 46-year-old mother of two said in French Creole through a translator, after English class at the Association of Haitian Women in Boston. "When someone goes back and they don't have any family and don't have any money, what are they going to do?"
From Boston to Miami, Haitians and several prominent advocates are intensifying pressure on the US government.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Representatives Barney Frank and Stephen Lynch are urging the Department of Homeland Security to grant Haitians temporary protected status, and Lynch cosponsored a bill that would force Secretary Janet Napolitano to take the step if she does not act on her own. The status would allow Haitian immigrants, legal and illegal, to remain here and work for a fixed amount of time.
State Representative Marie St. Fleur, who was born in Haiti, visited that country this spring and then met with White House aides on the issue last month. In January, Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph took it even further, by stalling deportations to Haiti. He refused to provide deportees' travel documents until the Obama administration reviews its policy on Haiti.
"Anyone who requests a paper from us is not getting it," he said Friday.
Last month Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Haiti and said the US government was reviewing its policy on granting Haitian immigrants temporary protected status.
But Napolitano, who has the granting authority, has stayed silent. Deportations halted last year after the hurricanes, but have resumed, including a plane filled with 48 convicted criminals who were deported to Haiti last month, said her spokesman Sean Smith.
Frank said Friday that the US policy is discriminatory. The government now provides temporary protection to five countries - El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia, and Sudan - but it has never offered it to Haiti.
"I think it's outrageous that they don't have it," Frank said.
Others are more cautious, saying Haiti is one of many struggling countries. They worry that the temporary protection would become permanent. Salvadorans and Hondurans have had the status for years.
"Haiti is a country that's in bad shape, but it's perpetually in bad shape," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors reduced immigration. "There are hurricanes, but there will always be hurricanes."
But Haitians say their nation should qualify for temporary protection. It is beset by widespread unemployment and crime, and is still recovering from last year's hurricanes, which left 800 dead, thousands homeless, and led to riots over food. Haitian officials are also worried that deportations will slash the $1.87 billion that Haitians in the United States sent home last year, more than a quarter of that nation's income, according to the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington.
And hurricane season starts June 1.
In Massachusetts, Haitian immigrants are one of the largest groups in the state, with more than 43,000 people clustered in Boston and other large cities. They include taxi drivers, parking garage attendants, and cooks, and also college professors, politicians, and high school valedictorians. Each year, immigrants here send more than $12 million home to Haiti.
"It makes sense for us to keep those people here," said Carline Desire, executive director of the Association of Haitian Women in Boston. "It's never given to Haitians when we meet all the conditions."
A 51-year-old Hyde Park housewife named Marie, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used, is a legal immigrant whose visa expires in July. She intends to overstay it because she refuses to bring her 13-year-old American-born son to Haiti.
"I have to stay to take care of him," she said. "There is big trouble in Haiti."
Charles Pean, a 55-year-old Boston radio show host and Haiti native who has been pressing for temporary protected status on the air, said Haitians are worried about deportations.
"I don't want to sound apocalyptic, but I know Haiti will be 10 times, 100 times worse than the way it is now because we do not have any structure to absorb those people," he said. "All the institutions are weak. They are not prepared for a catastrophe."