The Catalyst

Marleine Bastien -- activist, social worker, songwriter, mother -- is helping to lead the resurgence of South Florida's Haitian political agenda

Even political participation has taken Haitians longer than other immigrant groups, Bastien asserts. "Haitians had to fight from the beginning to come in [to the United States]. Then they were placed in detention for months or years, and while they were in detention, they lost a lot of time that could have been spent adjusting to the system. And even after they got out, they still had to spend a lot of time on immigration matters. For them to get permanent residence it's a battle. They're scrutinized more, and they have to produce all kinds of papers not requested from other groups. Everything is harder."

Internal divisions have also exacerbated a lack of cohesion in the community, a fact made more pronounced over the past five years with the decline of the once internationally known Haitian Refugee Center, a legal aid organization that was also at the center of local activism.

The new, unified push behind the Haitian immigration legislation provided a needed focus, and for the first time Haitians could think of themselves as a bloc with political clout beyond Miami. The Haitian American Grassroots Committee, a Miami-based coalition, was at the forefront of the national effort, and it brought together many Haitian activists and business people with deeply opposing views. "It was a challenge to keep it together for eleven months," remarks committee chairman Jean-Robert Lafortune. One observer who asked not to be identified echoed numerous others: "There is a lot of jealousy there, mostly very petty."

Haitians have a history of noncooperation, says Florida International University anthropology professor Alex Stepick, who studies Haitian immigration. Haiti is a rural society in which towns are fairly isolated, and as Stepick puts it: "The central government has never had any form of control except through corruption and violence. People don't trust anyone beyond their own family."

The Grassroots Committee grew out of two loose-knit groups that had been created some three months before Congress enacted the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) in November 1997. NACARA exempted hundreds of thousands of Cubans and some Central Americans from harsh provisions of the 1996 immigration law that made deportation a virtual certainty for any immigrant who had not lived in the United States at least ten years and hadn't obtained permanent resident status. Since Haitians weren't included in NACARA, about 100,000 would face deportation in December 1998.

Steve Forester, a combative Miami immigration lawyer who has worked on Haitian issues for two decades, quickly formed a task force and began a blitzkrieg for equal legislative relief for Haitians. For more than a year Forester mailed and faxed letters and press releases to media across the nation, and he made hundreds of calls and visits to politicians and anyone else with any influence in the matter.

Rep. Carrie Meek had put together another community group, for which Cheryl Little helped coordinate a national effort. Meek had already submitted a bill to the House, H.R. 3033, commonly referred to as the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act. But when it became obvious that legislation would never pass the Republican Congress, Little and other attorneys from her office drafted compromise legislation that was later cosponsored by Florida's Bob Graham and Connie Mack. This version was included within the bill President Clinton signed into law October 21. By late 1997 members of the two coalitions were working in tandem, under the umbrella of the Grassroots Committee.

Any help for Haitians was opposed by the powerful chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Texas Republican Lamar Smith. Smith argued that Haitians didn't deserve the legislation because they had been treated better than other immigrant groups, an argument that was derided by the press and even other politicians. Smith was undeterred, however, from blocking consideration of Meek's bill by his subcommittee, or from twisting arms and passing out pamphlets to kill support.

The Haitians lobbying for the measure were always careful to conduct themselves with the utmost diplomacy, especially when meeting unfriendly lawmakers, so they rarely mentioned racism publicly during the months of campaigning. Every once in a while, though, that word would be shouted out during a rally or meeting. Why else would white men go to such trouble to oppose a law that wouldn't cost any money and would simply allow 40,000 black people to stay in the United States?

Plenty of politicians on both sides of the aisle, nevertheless, sided with the Haitians. Sen. Connie Mack and Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all Republicans who had pushed NACARA through Congress, vowed to work as hard for the Haitian bill. Diaz-Balart and other Republicans have since conceded that they feared including Haitians in NACARA would have killed it. Recalls Bastien: "'Haitians do not have political clout, and that's why you were forgotten.' They tell us that, either directly or in other words." Some key Republicans explained to Haitian activists privately that they were in favor of the legislation but loyalty to Smith prevented them from supporting it.

Bastien and other community leaders who would expend untold energy carrying on the protracted underdog campaign had in some ways been prepared for the ordeal by their experiences three years earlier.

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