After Eventful Year, Haitian-Americans Continue to Hope

By Macollvie Jean-François

In the aftermath of the devastation four major storms wrought on Haiti’s already fragile ecosystem and precarious daily life a few months ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it would stop deporting Haitians, temporarily. The news brought on such euphoria among some, it was as though the U.S. government had finally granted Haitians the long-sought, ever-elusive Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and at-long-last tangibly recognized Haiti’s volatility. When ICE revoked that measure 10 weeks later (see a Sun-Sentinel story reposted here), it was like throwing a bucket of water on advocates and families impacted.

But the hope — a popular word these days — is that an Obama Administration may be more receptive to granting Haitians TPS. It’s one example of aspirations many Haitian-Americans hope will fare better than they did under George Bush.

No one expects substantial change in Haiti or Haitian enclaves overnight, though many experienced an immediate boost in pride at the President-elect’s achievements. People understand that the recession, the wars, health care, education and energy take precedence over immigration-related issues.

Haitian-Americans and friends of Haiti are quick to throw out these maxims in conversation about U.S.-Haiti relations: “When it rains in the U.S., it pours in Haiti”; “If the U.S. sneezes, Haiti catches a cold.” The sayings speak to the connection between the two countries – a mere 2-hour flight from each other — and how heavily Haiti relies on the U.S. for aid, whether from the U.S. government or remittances sent home by Haitian -Americans. It’s the reason thousands of naturalized U.S. citizens stood on those snaking lines across South Florida to vote early, some standing for several hours. Their ballots, firmly cast, helped deliver Florida to Obama, early and decisively.

That Election Night, a group took to a corner in Little Haiti after watching the results, dancing and beating drums in celebration [Click on Obama Victory]. Youngsters driving up and down Northeast 2nd Avenue pressed on their horns, waved Haitian and American flags, yelling, “Yes, We Did.”

People here hope for a policy toward Haiti that is comprehensive, streamlined, smart and empathetic. During the campaign, Obama’s rainbow-coalition background appealed to Haitians for different reasons — his father’s immigration experience, his own hyphenated- identity, and going through life with a phonetically jarring name.

This past year, Haitians in South Florida, and elsewhere, have grappled with life after a loved one is deported. The undocumented have gone further underground, to avoid being caught in immigration raids. Many mothers are at their wits’ end, dealing with youngsters joining “gangs” springing up in pockets all over South Florida. Like the rest of the country, many immigrants too have lost homes and their jobs.

Haiti, meanwhile, continued to grab headlines, drawing different reactions from Haitians here and those who cared. The food crisis of the spring/summer put Haiti front and center, and created, at least anecdotally, a surge in remittances. As the closest and most accessible example of the wave of hunger sweeping across the world, hundreds of journalists descended on Haiti, and shot excessive footage of poor Haitians digging through piles of trash for food, or eating “dirt cookies” for sustenance. It was embarrassing.

The four storms battered the country. They flooded whole towns, and left piles of children dead in some streets. All communities, not just Haitians, quickly donated money, food and clothing to help. A slew of high-level officials, including then-candidate Obama, issued statements urging emergency aid to the devastated country.

Nearly two months since the Election, it seems most people are waiting to see what Obama can do, and hoping he succeeds. Some have complained that Haiti is not mentioned specifically on Obama’s transition website, but they’re not discouraged. People have pointed out, and prefer that Haiti be addressed in the context of a broader, umbrella plan for the Caribbean Basin or Latin America. Other immigrant groups have had similar complaints, though some of it was before the President-elect’s recent appointments.

Most seem satisfied with Obama’s cabinet selections. Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State was particularly welcome. She was the preferred candidate among Haitian-Americans Democrats early in the campaign, and has benefited from fundraisers organized by prominent Haitian-Americans. The presence of certain individual Haitian-Americans, like Illinois state senator Kwame Raoul, also adds to the sense that Haiti will have the president’s ear, or at least someone in the room.

Macollvie Jean-François is a journalist at the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

AboutFeet in Two Worlds
Feet in 2 Worlds (Fi2W) is an independent media outlet, journalism training program, and launchpad for emerging immigrant journalists and media makers of color. Our work brings positive and meaningful change to America's newsrooms and has a broader impact on how immigration is reported and the ethnic and racial composition of news organizations.