When he was running for governor of Florida, Jeb Bush secured hundreds of Haitian-American votes by making false promises.
In 2003, Haitian advocates learned from a meeting with Congressman John Conyers that Haitian detention would be indefinite. In the past, Haitian refugees with bona fide political asylum claims who posed no threats to their communities were released while going through the political asylum process. The rules changed, but no one knew about it.
After several high-profile meetings and trips to Washington, we learned that the orders to change the rules came from former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Inquiries by our congressional leaders revealed that the order had come from him. He claimed that Haitians would be detained indefinitely in complete denial of their most basic rights because they were a “threat to the national security of this country.”
How? He explained with a straight face that treating Haitians well would open a “floodgate.” Haitians would attempt to enter this country en masse. Palestinians and Pakistanis could thus go to Haiti, board these U.S.-bound refugee boats, and endanger our national security. The world got a good laugh at us, but the policy remained.
Jeb Bush, as a candidate for governor, promised to change that. Haitian-Americans voted for him based on this promise and also on Bush’s visceral hatred of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He did not keep his promise. The policy of detaining Haitians even when they were found to have credible asylum claims remains in force today. Haitians who flee Haiti in search of safe haven in the U.S. are detained indefinitely, even when they make it to land. Under the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, only Cubans are allowed to stay here when they arrive on U.S. shores. If you are fleeing to save your life, whether you make it to land or not, does not change your situation, does it?
The governor’s brother, our own former President Bush, did not promise anything. But when he took power, he claimed that his government would practice “compassionate conservatism,” and would put great emphasis on “family values.”
Surely, he would not condone the grave abuses perpetrated against immigrant families? They give their all to this country. Their love, their strength and their faith, faith in a country that is the most powerful in the world today because of their contributions.
They came from all over the world. Yet, during the course of former President Bush’s eight years in power, immigrants have been criminalized, marginalized, dehumanized. Officers from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security storm their houses in the wee hours of the morning and drag them with handcuffs to detention centers.
Haitians fare worse. Just like slavery time, breastfeeding mothers were wrenched away from their babies and hurled to prisons. Little children are left with grieving fathers at a loss of what to do. Entire families are broken down because the mother or father was arrested and sent to jails all over the country. This is compassionate conservatism?! Where is the compassion?!
After a food crisis that toppled Haitian Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis, four successive storms ravaged Haiti. Strong winds and powerful water currents came down the mountain with a vengeance, destroying everything in its path: human beings, animals and crops. More than 700 people died, mostly children. Hundreds more are still unaccounted for, and 1.2 million are homeless. Famine is now king in several villages where children are dying of malnutrition. Nature conspired with the bêtise (Haitian Creole for foolishness) of men to create havoc pou youn pep ki about (for a people already overwhelmed). President Preval wrote a letter to President Bush back in October asking for TPS (Temporary Protected Status ) for Haitians.
Every observer on the terrain in Haiti agrees that it is facing its worse crisis ever. President George W. Bush sat on the letter until a couple of days before New Year’s Day, at the end of his term. Why? It would not cost him anything, anything politically to right this wrong…to erase this grave injustice done to Haitians.
Instead, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff sent a response letter to the media to make sure that it would be published. He denied President Preval’s request. He wanted to go out as the U.S. president who snubbed Haitians ‘til the end. Reportedly, President Preval has not yet received the letter. C’est une insulte grave (French for:” this is a grave insult”).
Now, it is up to President Barack Obama. He has a moral duty to right this wrong! He can do it with a stroke of his pen! I told the Obama transition team exactly that when I met with them and 17 other immigrant advocates recently.
Haitians have waited so long for the bells of justice and equal treatment to ring! Justice delayed is justice denied!
Marleine Bastien is the founder and executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (FANM), or Haitian Women of Miami, Inc.