Haitian-American politicians make new push for power
A community that lacks political clout is making a new push to claim some power.
By Lesley Clark
The Miami Herald, November 34, 3009
Washington, DC — Haitian-American politicians from across the United States, eager to exert some influence over U.S. immigration laws, have forged an alliance in hopes of shaping legislation and policy toward Haiti.
The push for a stronger voice on immigration issues comes as Haitian Americans — mostly Democrats who hailed President Barack Obama's election — have become increasingly frustrated that the administration has not moved faster to give undocumented Haitians a chance to temporarily stay in the U.S. and work.
The National Haitian American Elected Officials Network, formed by 22 elected officials from Florida to New Hampshire, met for the first time last month in Washington to discuss immigration legislation and U.S. policy and aid toward Haiti. Despite its fledgling status and size, the group of state lawmakers, mayors and city-council members managed to attract a handful of power players — including officials with U.S. aid agencies and Obama's Haiti-born political director, Patrick Gaspard — to its two-day conference.
“You stay persistent,'' urged Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, one of several members of Congress who addressed the group. “Remember, it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.''
Observers and politicians involved in the effort to launch the network suggest its formation could mark a new chapter for an often fractious community that has not wielded significant political clout, particularly at the national level.
“This is the budding stage,'' Hastings said. “It's never going to be the most powerful delegation, but Haiti needs all the voices it can find.''
The group got its start last spring in conversations between state Rep. Marie St. Fleur — a Massachusetts Democrat who in 1999 became the first Haitian American elected at the state level — and North Miami City Clerk Alix Desulme. The two chatted at a White House reception last spring and Desulme said that the idea for the group formed after “listening to the same kind of rhetoric on immigration policy'' from administration officials.
“We were thinking we need to get more involved,'' Desulme said. “The idea was that all of us getting together as elected officials would be stronger than anything we could do individually.''
`Without Our Input'
St. Fleur said she had talked about pulling together elected officials for several years but began working in earnest after the conversation with Desulme.
“Decisions are being made without our input, and it's time for that to end,'' she said. “Collectively, we bring valuable experience and background that can help shape Haiti policy.''
St. Fleur said the group wanted to be operational before lawmakers and the White House take up efforts to revamp immigration laws. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said this month that the administration backs a path to legalization for the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants and expects Congress to take up an immigration overhaul in 2010.
“We want to be at the table and to be there, you have to put yourself there,'' St. Fleur said.
During the initial meeting on Oct. 29-30, the group hammered out recommendations it plans to share with the administration and Congress.
Among them: an immigration overhaul that includes a path to legalization for undocumented Haitians in the U.S.; Temporary Protected Status for an estimated 35,000 Haitians facing deportation; including Haitian-American elected officials in the development of U.S. funding and policy priorities for Haiti; and better accountability for U.S.-funded projects in Haiti.
The networking is a step toward greater political clout that other ethnic groups have long embraced, said Rosalind Gold, senior director of political research and advocacy for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
“It's absolutely critical for any community that is trying to get access to full participation and full representation that you have an ability for elected leadership to form a strong network for advocacy,'' Gold said. “Going national is also a way of acknowledging population changes that are occurring. Getting people to realize: `We're not just in Miami.' ''
`Have the Power'
The new group points out there are more than 2 million Haitians and Haitian Americans in the U.S. A 2008 census conducted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority estimated that Haitians in the city paid $60 million in state and federal taxes.
Joseph Baptiste, the founder of the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians, said he has been prodding elected officials to create such a network for years. He said elected officials can often press for access more successfully than advocacy groups.
“They have the power as elected officials to move the agenda faster than any other group,'' Baptiste said, pointing to the network's ability to land administration speakers at its first meeting. “When the network called, the White House answered. We get respect as far as letting us know what the decisions are going to be, but we're not sitting at the table before they make the decision.''
`A Lot to Offer'
St. Fleur said she was surprised at the number of elected politicians with ties to Haiti. And not all of them represent areas with large Haitian populations. State Rep. Jean Jeudy, a Democrat, was elected to the state House in New Hampshire in 2005 from a mostly white district.
“We don't want to tell folks what to do about Haiti, but we do want to help in the decision-making,'' Jeudy said. “We've got a lot to offer.''
South Florida's Haitian community will have an opportunity in November 2010 to elect the first Haitian American to Congress. With Kendrick Meek vacating his House seat to run for the U.S. Senate, four Haitian-Americans — and at least six other candidates — are in the running for the seat.
Some observers are worried that the community's vote could be split.
“I've suggested to various candidates that they internally talk amongst themselves and figure out what makes the most sense, but everyone has a right to run,'' said Rep. Ronald Brise, a Haiti-born Democrat from North Miami. “We'll see what happens.''
With 10 elected Haitian Americans, Florida already has the largest representation in the new organization, including Desulme, Brise and North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre, who said he's eager for the group to gain clout.
“The community is starving for leadership,'' said Pierre. “It's important for us to be heard.''