The Catalyst

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

It took almost three years for them to start trying, but the attempt was successful. In late 1992 they remarried. Desire moved into the rambling house in North Miami Beach that Bastien had bought the year before. Their second boy, Akim Sankara, was born in 1993 and the third son, Tarik Philip Rene, three years later. Bastien and Desire both work long hours, he designing computer programs. "I always say next year I'll decrease my activities," Bastien admits. "But I just get more involved. There just seem to be so many things wrong."

The fate of the Haitian relief legislation remained a mystery until virtually the last minute. The bill had shuffled from committee to committee, was sacrificed and revived, all while lawmakers and staffers waffled and bargained. At the very end of the congressional session, just as it looked as though the provision would be approved as part of a giant appropriations bill, the Republican leadership chopped it. Finally -- miraculously, by some accounts -- it was tagged to a different spending bill and passed. "I have shed tears on the floor of the House," Carrie Meek declares, "just from my sheer desperation and disappointment in the debate on the Haitians."

The final lobbying trip to Washington by about fifteen members of the Miami Grassroots Committee took place in mid-September. A small contingent from New York joined them (Jocelyne Mayas couldn't make it). Working more behind the scenes on the Hill, as they had, were professional lobbyists and representatives of an array of national organizations: the National Immigration Forum, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Church World Service, the U.S. Catholic Conference, National Coalition for Haitian Rights, and influential Florida Republicans such as Al Cardenas and Ana Navarro.

While the legislation was in a House-Senate conference committee, the lobbyists worried that the bill's opponents would force supporters to water it down to save it. But the legislation approved by the Senate already represented a compromise and was less generous than NACARA, which grants amnesty to all Cuban and Nicaraguan immigrants who have lived in the United States since 1995 and relaxes standards Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans must meet to become residents and to escape deportation. If the same standards had been applied to Haitians, about 100,000 would have been spared deportation.

The compromise Haitian legislation excluded 60,000 of those, and proponents thought that any more concessions would render the measure almost worthless. Under yet another proposed compromise, no more than 100 Haitians would be allowed to stay. Even Lamar Smith was willing to support that.

So the lobbyists had to persuade key committee members not to accept any revision. The Haitians had two full days of meetings scheduled, mainly with aides to members of Congress, as well as with the bill's staunchest congressional supporters. Diaz-Balart compensated for the NACARA omission by leaning on several important Republicans, such as Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush. He in turn contacted the nation's top Republicans, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich (to no avail).

The latest threat of compromise, however, "could be a disaster," as Steve Forester kept warning. "We need Lincoln to talk to [relevant committee members]," he urged Diaz-Balart's legislative assistant Thomas Intorcio during a meeting in a red-carpeted, high-ceilinged conference room. "If this [compromise] is allowed to go through, the Haitian community would feel this is a sellout and a total defeat, and therefore a setback for Lincoln and Jeb."

An enthusiastic Intorcio assured the group: "I had a call yesterday from a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. He was checking on the ground what the level of support was, and I think he's very pleased."

"When this is all over," Jean-Robert Lafortune promised as the group filed out of the conference room, "we intend to invite [Diaz-Balart] to Little Haiti."

The next meeting was not so upbeat. Some of the Haitians had been trying to arrange a discussion with Lamar Smith's aide Laura Baxter. Smith had listened to the Haitians' concerns during one of their first trips to the Capitol, but the encounter had been uncomfortable. Most of the group was surprised to run into Baxter while she was having lunch in the cafeteria of the Rayburn Building, one of the congressional office buildings. She agreed to an informal discussion and to relay the visitors' concerns to her boss.

About a dozen members of the Haitian delegation drew up chairs. Baxter -- young, pale, serious -- was literally trapped in her seat next to a wall. The two sides couldn't find a single point on which they agreed. When Baxter mentioned that Smith considered Nicaraguans and Cubans to deserve some help because they had fled communist regimes, the Haitians complained that "persecution is the same whether it's from a communist or a noncommunist government."

"I understand," Baxter responded, adding that the insupportable economic conditions in Cuba and Nicaragua also had to be taken into account. The Haitians tried to argue that Haiti's shaky economy and lack of infrastructure couldn't handle an additional burden of 100,000 returning citizens, but Baxter contended there was evidence some conditions were improving. At that, Miami attorney Michael Ray angrily rose and walked out.

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