National News

Miami’s Haitians, Used to Being Shunned, Rally After Trump Slight

Posted January 18, 2018 11:04 p.m. EST
Updated January 18, 2018 11:06 p.m. EST

MIAMI — When Jacques Despinosse lost a primary for the Florida House of Representatives in the 1990s, he chalked up his drubbing to the skepticism many voters had for candidates from what was then a relatively small Haitian diaspora.

But since then, Haitian-American politicians have made one electoral stride after another in the state, winning commission seats in the counties encompassing greater Miami, representation in the Legislature, the mayoralty of North Miami and coveted judgeships.

Despinosse, 72, now a local eminence in Democratic politics, eventually won a seat on North Miami’s City Council and served two terms. So after President Donald Trump was reported describing Haiti and unspecified African countries as “shitholes,” Despinosse couldn’t help but smile a little.

“Trump's racism is a rallying cry for us Haitians,” said Despinosse, who focuses on persuading Haitian immigrants to obtain U.S. citizenship and vote. “He’s sorely mistaken if he thinks he’s toying with some uneducated refugees.”

Trump's comments may have horrified many Americans, but for Haitians in South Florida, they were yet another reminder of the stigma they have faced since they began arriving decades ago in large numbers. They have had to refute claims that they are carriers of disease, struggle to find their footing in a society where Latinos have long been ascendant, and face ostracism from some of their African-American neighbors.

Still, the presidential insult is also serving among Haitians here as a reminder of their capacity to overcome such hurdles. And their Democratic-leaning leaders are now vowing to use the episode to bolster citizenship drives and turnout in a state where the outcome of presidential elections can turn on a handful of votes.

While their poverty levels are still relatively high — about 1 in 5 families live below the poverty line, double the national rate — the Haitian community in South Florida exudes pride over their doctors, lawyers, engineers and other highly educated professionals. Many are the children of the immigrants who came by the boatload in the late 1970s and 1980s, escaping economic devastation and repression under Jean-Claude Duvalier, the despotic Haitian ruler aided by the United States when it was buttressing anti-communist governments in the Caribbean.

Those arriving in the early waves found themselves from the start on unequal footing with immigrants from another Caribbean nation, communist Cuba. In policies that lasted from the Cold War to the final days of the Obama administration, the United States gave Cuban immigrants legal status upon arrival, significantly easing their way into Florida’s labor force.

Haitians, meanwhile, often toiled in the shadows. Reflecting fears in the United States over an influx of Haitian immigrants, U.S. authorities rejected more political asylum requests from Haitians than those from any other national group. Among those who made it to U.S. shores, Haitians were disproportionately incarcerated, according to Alex Stepick, emeritus professor of anthropology at Florida International University. Longtime Miami residents kept their distance from the newcomers who spoke Creole and sometimes mixed in voodoo rituals with Catholicism. Native-born Miamians would sometimes describe a person with psychiatric problems as “acting Haitian.”

Many Haitian immigrants and their descendants contend they are still treated worse than other groups. Still, they can also point to achievements in an array of realms, having emerged as a crucial source of remittances for the Haitian economy and a constituency to be courted in U.S. elections for both Democrats and Republicans.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump visited Miami’s Little Haiti, a bastion of the Haitian community, in which he told the small gathering, “I really want to be your biggest champion.”

Georges Sami Saati, 65, a Haitian-American businessman and Republican who was in the crowd to greet Trump that day, said he remained in the president’s camp, emphasizing the president’s capacity for “straight talk.”

“Look, I don’t agree with 100 percent of what Trump says,” said Saati, adding that his comments on Haiti “are something that many people say every day.”

Still, with Haitian-American politicians wielding greater influence in South Florida than ever, political leaders in the community, which is heavily Democratic, are forging strategies to counter what they view as the Trump administration’s hostility toward them.

They point to the administration’s move in November to end a humanitarian program allowing more than 45,000 Haitians to live and work in the United States since Haiti’s 2010 earthquake; a December report that Trump said Haitians “all have AIDS”; and this week, the removal of Haiti’s eligibility for a small number of temporary visas to do agricultural or seasonal work. Among other reasons for the decision, the administration cited Haitians’ history of overstaying their visas.

Trump has denied disparaging Haiti and making the comment about AIDS, though the episode reminded some here of how Haitians protested their inclusion in the 1980s by the Centers for Disease Control on the list of groups having the highest risk of contracting AIDS.

“Haitian kids were treated like we had created HIV,” said Francesca Menes, 32, a Haitian-American political activist who was born in Miami. “It was a very challenging time to grow up Haitian.” About 333,000 people of Haitian descent live in the three big South Florida counties, according to Census Bureau estimates, and 244,000 are American-born or naturalized citizens. While their political leaders hope they can muster enough new votes to deny Trump a second Florida victory in 2020, the president still has resilient support elsewhere in the state.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican representing a district extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Alabama state line, this week called living conditions in Haiti “disgusting.”

“Everywhere you look in Haiti, it’s sheet metal and garbage,” Gaetz told MSNBC in describing one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries.

Haitians are undeniably wielding influence in local and county politics, including in North Miami, a city with about 60,000 residents where people of Haitian ancestry form one of the largest voting blocs.

“It’s absolutely clear why Trump and the Republicans want many of our brothers and sisters deported and out of here, and it comes down to political power,” said Smith Joseph, 56, a Haitian-American doctor who is North Miami’s Democratic mayor. Little Haiti, long the heart of the community in Miami, exemplifies the changes rippling through Haitian Florida. Originally known as Lemon City for its citrus groves, the area was segregated for decades, with many of its black residents tracing their roots to immigration from the Bahamas.

Haitians put down stakes in the 1970s, opening eateries, haberdasheries, tax-assistance services and grocery stores. Muralists evoked Haiti’s turbulent history on the area’s walls. Konpa music still blares from some storefronts and recent arrivals sell clothing from the back of vans.

The greatest threat today to the neighborhood’s Haitian essence is not from poverty, but wealth.

Developers have begun homing in on the streets near Miami’s Design District. Galleries in Little Haiti now feature conceptual installations, a shop deals in vinyl records and foodies can nibble on Argentine sweetbreads.

Surging rents are now pushing out some longtime residents, though Haitians’ foothold throughout the rest of South Florida is not in doubt.

“Since those difficult origins, we have worked hard, paid our taxes, raised new generations of driven professionals,” said Jan Mapou, 76, a writer and owner of Libreri Mapou, a bookstore in Little Haiti specializing in Creole titles. He proudly pointed out that his twin daughters are both doctors.

“Sadly, Trump and his people betray their ignorance when it comes to Haiti’s bond with the United States,” Mapou added, emphasizing how hundreds of Haitian infantry volunteers fought alongside Americans in the War of Independence. “We’re a people who have given life to this country, and we’ll just keep doing that.”