Haitian-American Politicos to Watch

Unlike their parents who focused on politics back home, the new generation of immigrants are making an impact on domestic politics.

Mathieu Eugene; Patrick Gaspard; Evelyn Garcia

Most Americans, if they were aware of Haitian Americans at all, associated them with a long list of negative images -- as poor refugees and non-English speakers, or simply as illegal immigrants -- long before the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake put Haiti in the international spotlight.

There are, of course, Haitian Americans who face many difficulties. But there is a whole other Haitian America: well educated, holding good jobs, well integrated into the mainstream. And its members are increasingly playing an active role in the American political process.

According to the Haitian Diaspora Federation, there are roughly 2.5 million Haitians in the United States (possibly a census undercount, as is often the case in minority and immigrant communities). There are Haitian-American state legislators, local council members, mayors, appointed officials and citizens involved in their political parties. They are overwhelmingly Democrats, but there are Republicans as well.

On the national level, the executive director of the Democratic National Committee, Patrick Gaspard, was a key figure in strategizing Barack Obama's presidential campaign. "Politics is in our bloodstream," he says of Haitians. "My large extended family had gatherings where that was always a topic. I was taught early on that actions you take can have important results."

Gaspard was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo to Haitian parents who, like many of their countrymen, had fled the brutal dictatorship that Haiti experienced during the Duvalier years. Gaspard's family moved to the U.S. when he was 3. He became a top labor leader in New York City, in charge of politics and legislation for the 300,000-member 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. He has worked on the political campaigns of Howard Dean, David Dinkins and Jesse Jackson.

Gaspard was President Obama's director of political affairs before taking on his current post. "The political focus for most Haitians in the States used to be almost entirely on Haiti, but over these past 10 years, they have undergone an Americanization process," he says. "They are involved in efforts to improve schools, job opportunities and health care here, issues most Americans care about."

There is a Haitian National Network of Elected Officials, a nonpartisan coalition that works to improve relations between Haiti and the U.S. The network holds conference calls among Haitian-American officeholders. It was established in 2009 by then-Massachusetts state Rep. Marie St. Fleur (now a top aide to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino), along with another Haitian-American Massachusetts state representative, Linda Dorcena Forry, and the University of Massachusetts' William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture.

Civic organizations such as the Haitian Roundtable in New York -- whose board of directors, chaired by Manhattan Deputy Borough President Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, includes a judge, top investment executives and other Haitian-American professionals (Editor's note: The Root's managing editor, Joel Dreyfuss, is on the board) -- advocate for Haiti and hold educational forums. The Haitian Diaspora Federation, headquartered in Washington, D.C., was founded in response to the earthquake to bring together nonprofit organizations that support Haiti's rebuilding.

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Efforts on the part of such activists have led to a major victory for Haitians: the recent extension of TPS (Temporary Protected Status), humanitarian visas that allow people who fled the earthquake to stay in the United States for 18 months longer than the 18 months originally permitted. Gaspard points out, "This was one of several issues that show that Haitian Americans have learned to forge coalitions to achieve their goals. They worked with the Catholic Church, with their representatives and with other supporters."