National News

Haitians in Tampa Bay area react to Trump's slur: "It's very racist"

Posted January 12, 2018 10:56 p.m. EST

Fadia Richardson had just finished dinner Thursday when she sat to watch the news and saw a report she didn't want to believe.

In an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers, President Donald Trump reportedly questioned why the United States needs more immigrants from Haiti. When the discussion turned to Africa, Trump reportedly referred to African nations as "s---hole countries" and said he wants more immigrants from countries such as Norway.

"To me, it just shows ignorance," said Richardson, 65, a Haitian immigrant and retired teacher who lives in Lithia, "because if you're an educated person who knows what immigrants have done for this country, you wouldn't make such a statement."

The comments have sparked criticism of Trump, who took to Twitter on Friday to offer an apparent denial, saying he used "tough language" in the meeting "but this was not the language used."

But for many local Haitians, the damage was done.

"We're outraged," said Caleb Exantus, a 26-year-old Tampa man who was born in Port Au Prince, moved to the United States with his family as a child and is now enrolled at the University of South Florida. "He doesn't know how important Haiti is to America."

Trump's reported comments resonate more in Florida and Tampa Bay given the number of Haitians here. U.S. census figures from 2013 show more than 9,000 Haitians in Hillsborough County, nearly 1,500 in Pinellas County and just under 1,000 in Pasco County.

Micki Morency of Hudson said she took to Twitter and Facebook to voice her objections.

"We are crying tears of anger," said Morency, whose husband, Dr. Yves Morency, is a retired physician and had a practice in St. Petersburg for 30 years.

Morency's mother, who lives in St. Petersburg and attends St. Joseph's Catholic Church, came to the United States and worked as a cook at a Boston convent then brought her family here.

All seven of her parents' children have done well, Morency said. One brother is a school resource officer at St. Petersburg High School. Another recently retired as an engineer, and a sister worked as a teacher and now runs an orphanage in Haiti.

"When Haitians leave Haiti and come here, we come with a purpose," Morency said. "We come here and we work hard."

Dr. Frederic Guerrier of St. Petersburg left Haiti at 17 in 1971, not speaking English, but 10 years later had a medical degree and has operated his own practice since 1984, he said.

Trump's preference for people from Norway misses the untapped potential of others, Guerrier said.

"There are teachers, there are reporters, there are nurses, engineers .?.?. anybody who is supporting themselves, paying their mortgage, is doing great," he said. "We all have a part of making America great."

The same can be said for immigrants from Africa, said Olufunke Fontenot, who called Trump's comments "slander" against African countries such as her native Nigeria.

"Of course, we all realize that people from other parts of the world, including Africa, have contributed to the political, economic and social development of the United States," said Fontenot, interim regional vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Fontenot, who came to the United States in 1989 and called herself a proud American-Nigerian citizen, emphasized that she was not speaking on behalf of USF.

Geldine Ambroise, a senior at USF and president of the campus' Club Creole, said Trump's comments hurt, especially because they came a day before the eighth anniversary of the earthquake that devastated her native country.

"My country is beautiful, it's resilient, and our people are very strong and independent people," Ambroise said. "We work with what we have and even if we have nothing, we still work hard to better ourselves. "

The administration makes even Haitians with American passports afraid to speak up, Morency said. They equate the climate now with the repression of former Haitian President François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, she said.

"I grew up in those times," she said. "I see those signs."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.