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.
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."
Politics Are Local
As one might expect, Haitian Americans rising to leadership positions are mostly found in areas with large Haitian populations — New York and New Jersey, Florida, Boston, Chicago — but there are others. One of Manchester, N.H.'s state representatives, Jean Jeudy, arrived in this country from Haiti as an adult knowing little English. Visiting a friend, he and his wife were entranced by New Hampshire and "the freedom of American politics."
He got a job at a lumber firm owned by a French Canadian and studied English at night school. While recovering from a severe back injury suffered on a later job, he watched C-SPAN. "That was my real school," he says. "I wanted to be a political representative." A Democrat, he became civically active and, after losing an election, won on his second try in 2005. The vast majority of his constituents are white. He says that there are roughly 1,000 Haitians in New Hampshire.
In New York City, the Haitian Roundtable's Pierre-Louis, an attorney who has long advocated for domestic violence victims, recalls, "I grew up in a household where service and a desire to create change was emphasized." Born in Cleveland to Haitian parents, she spent her student years at Tufts University, where she became involved in protests seeking divestment from South Africa. The experience was "pivotal" in her political development. She feels that Haitian Americans have learned a great deal about political organizing from other immigrant groups.
In 2000, Phillip Brutus was the first Haitian American to be elected to Florida's House of Representatives. Five others have been elected to Florida's legislature since then, with three, including Brutus, currently serving. Brutus, a lawyer in the Miami-Dade area, is a board member of the Democratic Caribbean Caucus of Florida, covering 67 counties. "Haitian Americans who grew up here often assimilate into the African-American community," he notes. "Leaders in both communities emphasize the importance of participating."
Miami-Dade Haitian leaders include mayors, the most prominent being North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre, an immigration attorney whose predecessor as mayor, civil engineer Josaphat Celestin, is a Haitian-American Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the Florida Senate. Pierre has held key positions in national and Miami-area civic and governmental organizations.
The State Department appointed him to represent the U.S. government as a delegation member at the International Conference of World Cities and Regions for Haiti, held in Martinique in March 2010. At times a controversial figure, Pierre has had accusations of corruption leveled against him.
"Voting Makes Things Happen"
The president and founder of the Democratic Haitian American Caucus of Florida, Evelyn Garcia was a delegate at the 2008 Democratic convention and is a member of the Democratic National Committee. When she moved to Florida from Connecticut, "I met Jacques Lafontant, president of the United Haitian American Democratic Club of Palm Beach County, and saw what the club did," she says. "I had never encountered an organized Haitian-American political group.
"That inspired me. Political activists here have taught community members their rights, to trust their congressman's office and go for help with the immigration process. We stress to those who are busy with jobs and family that if they want concrete changes that affect their lives directly, voting makes things happen," Garcia says. "Haitian Americans vote."
They certainly voted in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Mathieu Eugene acquired the nickname "the Haitian Sensation" after his sweeping victory made him the Big Apple's first Haitian-born City Council member in 2007. A physician, he has made a point as a council member of arranging public health fairs to provide free health screenings. As a council member, he advocates for homeowners, small class sizes, public safety and stronger police-community relations.
In Illinois, Kwame Raoul has served as state senator since he was appointed to replace then-newly elected U.S. Sen. Barack Obama in 2004. The Chicago district that Raoul represents is extremely diverse, including both poor and wealthy African Americans, the University of Chicago community and the affluent Gold Coast.
He recalls that Obama's advice to him was to get to know other kinds of people — those across the aisle and those of different backgrounds. "Exposure to others does bring understanding," Raoul says. He has initiated exchange programs bringing Chicago residents to rural Illinois and vice versa. The son of a Haitian physician who made house calls to poor families, Raoul traveled to Haiti with a team from Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital to help rebuild Grace Children's Hospital.
Republicans are also reaching out to Haitians. Palm Beach County Republican Club President Sid Dinerstein says that young Haitian small-business people and evangelical Christians "respond to our message that free enterprise is the way out of poverty."
"I want my children to work hard and not view the government as something to depend on," says Womack St. Jean, a law student in Irvine, Calif. "And Republicans have strong family values."
A longtime Republican activist, Bernard Sansaricq was president of Haiti's Senate in 1994. In 2010 he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress in Florida's 23rd District, but he plans to run again next year. Sansaricq has appeared on national news programs such as Nightline. Having lost many family members to political violence in Haiti, he admires President Ronald Reagan's anti-Duvalier actions and has bitter views of President Bill Clinton's support of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Sansaricq is determined "to fight corruption."
Clearly, Haitian Americans in both parties share the belief that taking action is what counts. And clearly they are doing so.
Esther Tolkoff is a freelance writer based in New York City.