By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
There's something about a photograph taken last year in Washington, D.C., that recalls images from the civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties. Against the backdrop of the Capitol dome, twenty or so people cluster behind a podium and a bank of microphones. Among them are U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek of Miami and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. They surround a woman who is dressed in a conservative suit and an African headwrap. Her expression is anguished; she appears to be calling out an entreaty.
The woman is Marleine Bastien, a Haitian-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Miami since 1981. And she and most of the other people in the photo are indeed engaged in a civil rights struggle as all-consuming as that of 40 years ago; it's a fight, however, that remains invisible to most Americans because it is on behalf of the half-million Haitians in this country, a largely ignored immigrant group.
A Little Haiti barber, Luckner Belony, shot the photo on October 30, 1997, the second day of an intensive lobbying effort by a Haitian delegation from Miami and New York that numbered more than 100. Congress was then considering -- and ten days later would pass -- a bill granting green cards to 150,000 Nicaraguan and Cuban immigrants who would otherwise have been subject to deportation. But the legislation didn't cover about 100,000 Haitians who were also subject to deportation, despite years as U.S. taxpayers. Meek had drafted an amendment giving Haitian immigrants the same rights as the other groups, and the Haitian delegation was trying to get the amendment added to the bill.
That attempt failed, but Meek and two other representatives from Florida then submitted the item as a separate bill. Florida's two senators later introduced compromise legislation.
Then followed a year of trips to Washington and volunteers working thousands of hours making phone calls, writing letters, sending e-mails, making speeches, and organizing rallies around the country. It was a year in which Miami's Haitian community united behind a cause as it never had before and assumed an unprecedented leadership role in national Haitian-American politics. Just two weeks ago, all their work resulted in a law that grants green cards to 40,000 Haitians.
The group of lawmakers and Haitian activists in Belony's photograph had just emerged from the Capitol for a press conference on the steps. When a reporter asked the reason for the gathering, Meek turned to Bastien. "Why don't you tell them, Marleine?" the two-term congresswoman urged. Even in the company of national politicians, Meek knew that Bastien's impassioned public speaking, in Creole or English, always had a visceral effect on audiences.
Bastien had assumed the lawmakers would do the talking and so hadn't prepared remarks. But she had articulated the message before and would repeat it many times in coming months. "That girl's voice resounded all the way to the Washington Monument," Meek recalls today. "The cadence of her voice just compels you to follow her."
"In 1990 a new day started in Haiti," began Bastien, referring to the country's first democratic presidential election, won by Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "This was a day of hope; things were going to be different. Unfortunately, this [hope] lasted only seven months....
"The overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide was one of our darkest days," she continued. "Women, men, and children had to leave their houses and go into hiding; others were tortured and beaten. Women were hacked to death by machetes, their arms and breasts cut off. Girls as young as five years old were raped. Because -- they had hope."
Bastien frowned, and her melodic voice rose with emotion. Tiny gold and silver threads glinted in her turban as she gestured. "Some people were lucky enough to escape. Some spent days and months in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Many were sent back. Some were allowed to make new lives in a country that did not welcome them. They found jobs and established businesses. They bought houses, they got married and had children. They are the people who are going to be torn away from that. We Haitians are here on the steps of the Capitol today to ask that this wrong be made right."
Marleine Bastien is not a politician, although friends have encouraged her to run for office. At the moment she is among a small group of Haitian Americans, most of them well-educated and articulate women in their thirties and forties, who have earned political prominence within Miami's Haitian community through years of social activism. Bastien calls herself "a catalyst."
"What I've been trying to do is get people to organize themselves," she says. "But more important, I'm trying to get women to participate more, because I believe it's going to take the empowerment of women to contribute to the building of this community so we can get to the point where we can be respected."
"They have nicknamed the women [activists] diplomats beton -- sidewalk diplomats," says Bishop Thomas Wenski, a Creole-speaking priest who has been involved with Miami's Haitians for decades. The women, Wenski says, are filling a gap in the changing community. "There's a kind of leadership vacuum in the sense that the people who made noise five, ten years ago about [instituting] democracy in Haiti, they're back in Haiti, they're the old generation. The new generation is still emerging."
Gepsie Metellus, a colleague of Bastien's involved in many of the same causes, is prominent in both mainstream and Haitian politics; since 1996 she has served as an aide for Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey. "I think we're right in between the old generation and the young people we don't really know enough about yet," Metellus says. "The older generation isn't the leadership for the times, because they can't relate to the issues of younger Haitian Americans who see a role for themselves in terms of participating in Haitian politics, yet are firmly planted in U.S. politics."
When she doesn't cover her head with a turban or scarf, 39-year-old Bastien wears her hair parted into squares and gathered into little braids that fall around her face. Her eyes are round, her face broad and expressive. She is a social worker and has been employed at Jackson Memorial Hospital's Sickle Cell Center for eleven years, counseling families affected by the disease. She is married and has three boys, but her family does not see her much. Besides the hours and days she has given to the lobbying efforts, her community activities include advisory and volunteer work on behalf of social service, immigration, and women's advocacy and cultural organizations. She is often invited to speak to groups around the nation, and she has written a chapter for a social-work textbook, a book in Creole about AIDS for the Red Cross, and a children's book.
Then there are other public circles Bastien moves in, not so visible to the English-speaking mainstream: She has performed (occasionally alongside her husband, Jean Desire) as actor, singer, and dancer in dozens of Creole-language plays and in performances of traditional Haitian dance; she has recorded an album as part of the now-disbanded musical group Sanba Lele; and she writes songs that sometimes end up as parts of her speeches or presentations.
Her songs and her most pressing concerns have to do with women and girls who are disadvantaged by political and economic oppression, and by racism. Bastien is publicly identified with those concerns in her role as president of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (Haitian Women of Miami), a seven-year-old nonprofit she founded. The stated purpose of FANM is to advocate for women's rights and to work for the social, political, and economic empowerment of all women and girls, especially Haitian. The 30-member organization operates counseling and economic-assistance programs, and it conducts educational workshops and presentations on subjects rarely mentioned in traditional, patriarchal Haitian society: breast cancer prevention; domestic violence and child abuse; and how to work within the American educational and social service systems. This year the group received a $25,000 grant from Micro Enterprise of Florida to help ten Haitian women start their own businesses.
FANM is one of the most active of a handful of small nonprofits in Miami-Dade serving Haitian women, and its members are well-known. They are accustomed to getting calls from women in desperate circumstances, so many calls that the organization's bank account (consisting of donations) is always tapped. FANM members must also contend with resistance from male bastions such as Creole radio, the community's heart and soul and a power base for on-air personalities (the most prominent of whom are men). "A lot of radio people don't like me because of FANM," Bastien concedes. "They think we're teaching women to leave their husbands or neglect their families." Radio hosts contacted for this article, however, had only praise for her.
Aristide's election, overthrow, and restoration to power, all in the span of three years, transformed the thinking of the Haitian community here. Hopes and plans had always centered on establishing democracy in Haiti. "After [dictator Jean-Claude] Duvalier fell [in 1986], people started to think Haiti was going to be seventh heaven," says Carlo Jean-Joseph, a young Miami attorney. "Now they know it's not, and they say, 'Haiti's not my home; here is my home.'"
Over the following decade, many emigres did return to Haiti, determined to help rebuild the society. But more chose to stay in the United States and become citizens, finally relinquishing their Haitian passports and the faint hope of return they represented. (Even long-time residents such as Bastien and Desire acquired U.S. citizenship only last year.) Increasingly these Haitians turned their attention to forging a life in this country and in time became more American than Haitian. They are the ones who, ironically, have the most to contribute to Haiti but who won't be going back.
"It's time we understand it's the world against us," says Bastien's friend Jocelyne Mayas, a prominent Haitian activist in New York. "So we have to do what we have to do to survive. For a time, all the Haitian people who came here were living in transit. Ten, fifteen years went by, and we're still here. Now this is home, so we have to make it comfortable."
Perhaps the clearest sign that Haitians are putting down roots in South Florida is the unprecedented number who ran for local and state office in this past September's primaries. Except for one candidate who ran unopposed for the Republican slot in a heavily Democratic district (and who lost in the general election this past Tuesday), none of the four other Haitian candidates won their primaries. Attorney Phillip Brutus, however, who lost a primary race for the state house by just 51 votes, is challenging the results in court.
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.
Throughout 1995 a group of Miami immigration attorneys worked to secure the release of more than 300 Haitian children being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba. The children, ages three to seventeen, had either left Haiti without adult guardians or had been orphaned. At that time, tens of thousands of Cubans and Haitians were detained at Guantanamo, but the Cubans were gradually being released into the United States while the Haitians were being sent back to the country they had fled.
Attorney Cheryl Little, then-director of Florida Rural Legal Services in Miami (she currently heads the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center and is a member of Grassroots), led a team that flew several times to the base to interview the children. Bastien accompanied her as interpreter. They returned to Miami with stories of depressed and grieving children, many of whom had witnessed the murders of family members in Haiti; some youngsters in the camp had attempted suicide by drinking bleach or hanging themselves. Most were repatriated beginning in March 1995, even though many had relatives waiting for them in the United States. Only about 70 of the children were allowed into the country.
After the repatriations began, Little's investigators located some of the children back in Haiti, abandoned and starving. So while trying to get the remaining Guantanamo children admitted to the United States, she began a simultaneous campaign to bring the repatriated children in too. She and Bastien appeared on Oprah and told the nation about children living on the streets of Port-au-Prince while their mothers in Miami were powerless to rescue them. Some members of Congress, such as Carrie Meek, got involved, and movie stars, including Harry Belafonte, Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, and the late Gregory Peck, took the issue to their friend Bill Clinton.
A few factors complicated the efforts to bring the children here: fallout from the Haitian government, and Haitian exile politics. An American-led military force had returned Aristide to power only months before, in a long-awaited ouster of the military officers who had staged the 1991 coup. It wasn't popular in pro-Aristide Miami, then, to imply that the children might go home to a country unprepared to receive them. Aristide even sent a delegation to Guantanamo to persuade authorities to release the children to Haiti.
"We'd go on the radio to ask for support and we'd get all these calls from Haitians yelling at us and calling us Macoutes," says Bastien, referring to the Tonton Macoutes, Duvalierist paramilitary thugs. "We had rallies downtown, and very few people would show up." Proponents came to rely mostly on support from outside the Haitian community. Eventually months of work resulted in twelve children being plucked from misery in Haiti to settle with relatives in the United States.
Guantanamo has remained an immediate concern for Bastien and Haitian Women of Miami, which assisted in the resettlement of many of the 70 children who first came to Miami. For the past two years the Miami-Dade Women's Alliance has awarded the organization grants of $2000 to continue helping several girls by providing support that ranges from education and health referrals to psychological counseling.
At Guantanamo, too, Bastien met Jocelyne Mayas, a banker who had left Haiti more than 30 years earlier and taken up residence in New York. Mayas was volunteering for the United Nations at Guantanamo when Little's group began visiting. Bastien and Mayas have since become friends and collaborators in many causes.
Mayas was one of the Haitians in New York working for the immigration bill; she also founded two schools in that city to help Haitians adjust to the American system. "In Miami they have the same problems. Therefore the advocates always know one another, and we can unify our work," says Mayas. "So whenever Marleine has to go to Washington, she always calls me and we meet."
Growing up in Pont Benoit, a village in northern Haiti, Bastien was sure she was going to be a doctor. Her father, Philippe Bastien, was a rice and mango farmer who, because of a gift for diagnosing and healing diseases, was also considered the town's physician. Philippe Bastien had wanted to go to medical school but his illiterate father wouldn't allow it. Instead he taught himself nursing. "Our house was like an institution," recalls Marleine, the third of eight children. "Even us kids, even our mom, learned to take care of wounds. My dad had this gift -- whenever he'd see a patient, he could tell right away whether he could help them."
If he couldn't, they had to go to the nearest hospital at Des Chapelles, about fifteen miles away. "Even now in my mind's eye I can see how they carried the sick person," she says. "Early in the morning they'd put [the patient] on a flat piece of wood and they'd walk fast along the road, two holding the front, two at the back. Sometimes later they carried him back dead, oh, they'd be crying and crying." She balls her fists against her eyes, remembering. "Sometimes they would reach the hospital, but the hospital would send them back because he was going to die anyway and they had to give the bed to someone who had a chance."
Philippe Bastien also built the area's first school, and his oldest children worked as teachers during their three-month summer vacations. Because he was known as a servant of the people, Bastien, like many other intellectuals and activists, was considered by the government to be a communist, and he was regularly arrested and jailed, according to his daughter. "The day after I was born was one of the times they got him," she says.
In the late Sixties Bastien began selling his farmland so he could send his children to Catholic schools. In 1974 the family moved to Port-au-Prince, where Marleine attended the prestigious Swiss school, College Bird. Philippe worked as a cook on cruise ships. In 1980, as Haiti grew increasingly chaotic in the years leading to the overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Marleine's father found a job in Belle Glade, on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee, at a food stamp office. One by one his wife, Angelina Destinoble, and children left Haiti to join him. Today Philippe Bastien operates a trading business back in Port-au-Prince; Destinoble lives in Fort Lauderdale and travels back and forth to Haiti. Marleine's seven siblings have settled in South Florida.
In 1981, at the age of 22, she came to Miami to begin her college education. She assumed she would enroll in courses leading to medical school, a plan she explained to her academic adviser at Miami-Dade Community College, a white Cuban woman. "She told me that was going to be very hard to do, so I said, 'How about [studying to be] a lawyer?' She said that was even worse. She said the best thing was to become an executive secretary. I thought she really wanted to help me."
It took awhile before the "just come" (a new arrival from Haiti) understood that she had been nicely dismissed, and not for the last time, because of her skin color. "By the time I realized I had been misinformed, I thought I was too old to go to medical school," Bastien says. "Now I know I really wasn't. I also know a lot of black kids are treated like that."
Bastien reluctantly took secretarial courses at MDCC and at the same time began an expanding list of extracurricular activities. "The Haitian community at the time was very active," she recalls. "People were fighting against the Duvalier dictatorship. There were community meetings every weekend. I got right into the heart of things right after my arrival and never got out."
In 1982 Bastien started a full-time job as a paralegal and interpreter at the Haitian Refugee Center. Almost every day for five years she accompanied the center's lawyers to the Krome detention center, where thousands of Haitians languished in compounds or trailers surrounded by barbed wire fences. "There would be 30 to 50 hearings a day, but sometimes we had to wait for hours to see [the refugees]," she remembers. "Attorneys would be running from one courtroom to another. We'd chase buses, chase people to the airport when they tried to deport them without a hearing. Sometimes they'd beat up our clients and try to cover it up. I'll never forget Krome. It was because of all that I wanted to be a social worker."
"Back in the early days, she was this little girl who had just arrived," recalls Raymond Greenwood, an attorney hired by Bastien's father to help her obtain a work permit and permanent residency. She wound up working as a part-time interpreter for Greenwood, whom she considers one of her first mentors in the United States.
"People come to the U.S., streets paved with gold, land of justice and liberty, and suddenly she's down there seeing the way her compatriots were being treated," Greenwood continues. "When she worked for me, she never expressed a great social activism -- she needed a job. And now she has blossomed into this star of the Haitian community."
Bastien transferred to Florida International University after two years at MDCC and earned a bachelor's degree in social work in 1986 and her master's the year after that. So at one time she was enrolled full-time at FIU, employed full-time at HRC, and worked two successive internships: as a counselor for the crisis intervention hotline Switchboard of Miami and as a social work intern for Dade County's domestic-intervention program.
While still an undergraduate, she joined Sosyete Koukouy (Firefly Society), a dance/drama company directed by Little Haiti's prominent cultural maven Jan Mapou. Between school and work, Bastien danced and acted in several plays and traveled with the company to Montreal, New York, and other points north. In 1987 Jean Desire, a poet and actor who had recently moved to Miami from Chicago, joined the group. In Bastien he encountered a kindred intellect and sensibility, equal charisma, and similar involvement in social and political causes. They married in February 1988 at Legion Park in a Haitian ceremony accompanied by Koukouy dancers and Haitian musicians.
"Our friends called us the couple of the year," Bastien recalls. In September 1988 their son Omar Khalfani Desire was born. Six months later the couple of the year divorced. "We were both angry and disappointed," Bastien says now. "I had very high expectations of marriage, and it wasn't like that. We couldn't get along because we didn't really try to communicate."
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.
"At this point I'm not feeling like you're listening to me," Baxter said, appearing close to tears. "I'm trying to take all this back to my boss and have a discussion."
Again the aide asked what additional compromise the Haitians would be willing to make if that were necessary to save the bill. Again they told her they couldn't accept any change.
Everyone stood up and pulled the clustered chairs away from the table to make room for Baxter to leave. Several in the group remarked on the distress they had unintentionally caused her. "All those black people around her made her feel threatened," one observed, and the others nodded. Their mood, amid the bantering workers bustling by with loaded trays, was subdued. They were tired after two days of walking and talking, and they didn't know what they had to show for it when they caught the flight back to Miami that evening.
A few hours later Bastien, Lafortune, Broward activist Aude Sicard, and Little Haiti businessman Georges William encountered Ernesto Ramos, a veteran aide to Carrie Meek, at the Washington Convention Center. Meek was appearing on a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus's annual convention. Ramos excitedly motioned the four into an empty meeting room. Top Democrats, he said, including House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, were actively pushing the bill, and support within the conference committee (for the legislation passed by the Senate, not a compromise) now looked almost certain. "This morning [Bob] Graham and Gephardt were talking only about that legislation," Ramos added happily. "They're pushing for this. Gephardt said, 'I'll be with you.'"
"Wow," Bastien said warily, still mindful of the bill's seesawing fortunes. "That's the best news we've heard since we've been working on this thing."
In the taxi to the airport that evening, Bastien and Sicard reminisced about a December 1997 mass lobbying trip to Washington, an event meant for visual impact, unlike the more frequent, smaller delegations better suited for person-to-person contacts. Scores of Haitians from Miami, Chicago, New York, and Boston split up and poured into the congressional office buildings. The Miami contingent included dozens of factory and nursing-home workers sent by the labor union UNITE! whose membership is heavily Haitian. "There were all kinds of Haitians going down the halls of Congress," Sicard recalled. "A hundred people going from one senator's office to another. Older people, young kids, a six-month-old baby."
"Then we went to see a debate on the floor of the Senate," Bastien added. "People were so proud -- it was the first time they had lobbied for themselves. In the past somebody would come back to the [Haitian] community and say, 'I went to Washington and did this and that,' and that's the last anyone heard. This movement is like all civil rights movements. The people are at the heart of it."
Back in Miami on September 22, Hurricane Georges was approaching; in Washington, the legislation was still in conference committee. The Grassroots Committee decided to call a candlelight vigil in Little Haiti as a statement of resolve. Inside the Veye Yo (Watch Them) center on NE 54th Street, committee members passed out form letters of support for the bill. A loudspeaker pumped out ra-ra, a form of Haitian popular music, as the street filled with people. Hand-lettered signs dotted the crowd: "Jeb Bush Be Our Champion!" "We Support Meek's Bill," "Equal Treatment for Haitians." The people, about 300 in all, were solidly working class: mothers in shorts and tank tops toting babies in lacy dresses, men in brightly patterned shirts and pressed trousers.
As the sky turned from azure to indigo, the vigil organizers gathered around the center's entrance. Framed by yellow light from inside, Lafortune, Sicard, Bastien, and Tony Jean Tenor and Lavarice Gaudin of Veye Yo passed around a microphone. Bastien spoke last.
"For months now we've been fighting," she said. "Since December we've traveled to Washington, we've written thousands of letters to members of Congress telling them that Haitians will not sit down, Haitians will not rest, until we get justice." As she continued, alternating between Creole and English, her speech became rhythmic, sermonlike. "We will resist. We will continue to fight, because our fight is right. We will continue to fight until we get our green cards. Lamar Smith told us that Haitians are treated better than other groups. Have we received what we deserve? No!"
And as they had done in many rallies over the months, the crowd began chanting in response to Bastien's calls.
"Have we received equal treatment?"
"Are we treated better?"
"What do we want?"
"When do we want it?"
Over and over, Bastien called and the people responded. Then she and others grabbed bunches of candles of all lengths and colors, and they were passed from hand to hand. Little flames began to bob through the thick hot air. "We're going to do the procession in an orderly way," Lafortune instructed the crowd. "Three by three, follow Marleine."
The line spread east down 54th Street and then curled back like a snake, with Bastien, flanked by two elderly women in flower-print dresses, at the head. Finally the singing began, accented by high-pitched cries and whoops from the women. The first song was the one sung at nearly every rally for the past year. The tune is a Haitian folk melody, but Bastien had replaced the words with a simple refrain in Creole. "No, no, no, we're not going back," it begins. "If we go back, we will come back/America is ours, too.