Marleine Bastien said she has never seen the condition of the island so desperate.
On a trip to Haiti last month, the Miami activist and a group of clergy, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, toured the island nation, met with its president, Rene Preval, and surveyed the wreckage of years of poverty and neglect. The losses are exacerbated by a crippling food shortage that produced sporadic, but deadly riots in April, and which forced the prime minister, Jacques-Edouard Alexis, out of office.
The recent trip left Bastien, founder of Haitian Women of Miami (known colloquially as FANM, which stands for the Haitian Creole translation of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami) more determined than depressed.
“Haiti’s land is very fertile,” Bastien said during a recent interview at FANM’s Little Haiti headquarters. “It was the pearl of the Caribbean, and the major supplier of coffee and sugar to France.”
Those were colonial times, when Haiti passed from Spanish rule to become France’s richest colony. Haiti achieved independence on January 1, 1804, defeating the French Army to become the first free black republic.
But independence didn't last long. The island endured 19 years of U.S. occupation, from 1915 to 1934. Since then, its politics have been marked by instability, culminating in a series of vicious dictatorships, ending with that of Jean Claude Duvalier – “Baby Doc” — in 1986.
“For almost 100 years, we have had our grip on Haiti,” Bastien said of the U.S. “Why haven't we invested in the agricultural infrastructure so that Haiti can grow its own food?”
Bastien seethes at the fact that part of the misery on the island stems from loans signed and squandered by former dictators from the World Bank and other international lenders, which have burdened Haiti with crippling debt.
“I like the African saying: We did not borrow any money, we're not going to pay.”
Debt relief is just one of FANM's causes, all of which are aimed at changing the U.S. government's attitude toward Haitians, whom FAMN argues are valuable to both the American and Haitian economies.
“Haitians in the U.S. will send $1.23 billion in remittances to the island this year. And that's just what's captured,” Bastien said. “That's ten times what the U.S. gives to Haiti in aid.”
Another cause that Bastien champions is gaining TPS – Temporary Protected Status – for those who have fled Haiti and who live – largely in Miami-Dade County – under the constant threat of deportation.
Bastien and her legal team – two full-time lawyers, Danna Magloire and Steven Forester, FAMN's senior policy advocate – argue that an estimated 20,000 Haitians already in the U.S. and who lack resident status, should be allowed to remain until the dangers back home created by natural disasters, political instability, food shortages and violence subside.
“The U.S., Canada, France and Britain all say it’s not safe to travel to Haiti,” Forester said. “So why is it safe to deport people to Haiti?”
Forester added that TPS for Haitians is supported by the entire South Florida congressional delegation – both Republicans and Democrats, and by Senator Bill Nelson. But he is critical of some local elected officials, including Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who have been silent.
FAMN argues that TPS has been conferred and renewed multiple times for people from countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua, which received the designation in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The other countries currently designated for TPS are Burundi, El Salvador, Somalia, Sudan and Liberia, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“Why not Haiti?” asks Guy Victor, the former Haitian consul general, who now serves as program coordinator for S.O.S. for Haitians, Inc., a relief agency that has been organizing food relief for the island since early this year.
“Haiti is right in our back yard,’’ said Victor, adding that he applauds the work that FAMN and other grassroots organizations are doing. “And you have parents who have been living in this country for the past 20 years, whose children are finishing high school, and who are living here with no status.’’
Forester, too, is passionate in his criticism of the way Haitians are treated once they are processed. He cites the case of Fabienne Josil, 26 years old and five months pregnant when she faced deportation in April.
Forester said Josil could have miscarried due to the neglect of U.S. immigration officials, who took her to detention at Broward Transitional Centre in Pompano Beach, rather than returning her to the hospital, where she had been treated for uterine bleeding. She had collapsed upon learning of the deportation order on April 18.
The irony, he said, is that Josil had qualified to remain in the U.S. after legally immigrating with her father, a U.S. resident, at age 20. But because of delays by immigration authorities, she turned 21 in the middle of the process and automatically “aged out” of qualification to stay in the U.S.
“She qualified, but because of unconscionable delays, the government seeks to deport her,” said Forester, who describes his job as “raising hell.”
He said he brought the issue to the attention of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, and that eventually, “enough people raised hell” that Josil was granted a temporary stay April 28.
Bastien and her team emphasize that TPS would only benefit people like Josil, who are already in the U.S. She also calls deportation a threat to families.
“You've got people who have American children, and you're asking those children to choose between their mother and their country,” she said.
Forester added that some Haitian-Americans are supporting dozens of family members back home. Deporting them would not only break up families; it would also bring that critical flow of money to the island to a halt.
Forester, who has practiced immigration law for 29 years and is FAMN's chief legal strategist, takes issue with the characterization of Haitians in the U.S. as “illegal aliens,” or even “undocumented workers.”
“Haitians who come into this country are all documented,” Forrester said. “They come in and apply for asylum, so they’re not ‘illegal.’ Partly, it's a function of the sea border versus the land border” as in the case of Mexican migrants.
He continued: “Rarely is someone able to land a boat here without being intercepted and processed by U.S. authorities. They may be in proceedings, but they're not undocumented.’’
“Our policy vis-à-vis Haitians is discriminatory. It's based on racism,” said Forester, who is white. And until the policy changes, he said, FAMN will continue to “raise hell.”
For more information, contact Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (FANM), or Haitian Women of Miami, Inc., at 305-756-8050, by email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or log onto the organization’s website: http:// fanm.org.
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Marleine Bastien