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Posted April 2, 2007
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Haitians Have High Profile, Low Clout  
The Haitian-American community has failed to come together to lobby for immigration reform.




WASHINGTON -- The contrast is stark. Cuban Americans have a powerful Washington lobby that has helped win and maintain favorable treatment for its migrants.

Why can't the Haitian diaspora do the same?

The Haitian community has more friends than ever in high places in Congress, and its diaspora is throwing its muscle around more. But on immigration -- a burning theme for many Haitians -- its voice is muted.

Class and political divisions, some of them carried over from Haiti, hinder its lobbying clout on issues like immigration, several experts say, and explain in part the lack of congressional outcry when the 101 Haitians washed up on Hallandale Beach last Wednesday were immediately detained.

South Florida is home to the largest Haitian community in the country, with an estimated 329,883 of the 694,123 Haitians nationwide. And their status as one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups is reflected in their political gains.

Florida boasts two Haitian-American state lawmakers, and another recently served as secretary of health under former Gov. Jeb Bush, who actively courted the community's votes. In Chicago, Kwame Raoul, the son of Haitian émigrés, now fills Sen. Barack Obama's former state Senate seat. And Pierre-Richard Prosper, the son of Haitian doctors, served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes after he was nominated by President Bush in January 2001. He ended his term in 2005.

Under heavy lobbying by the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus and some Republicans, Congress last month enacted the HOPE Act, and President Bush signed it. The act provides duty-free imports for some Haitian textiles. The Bush administration also spared Haiti some of the deep aid cuts that hit other Latin American nations.

The Congressional Black Caucus has long been Haiti's strongest advocate, urging more economic aid and criticizing the lack of U.S. support for former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ousted in 2004 amid a violent uprising. And after the elections last November, Democrats active on Haiti issues now hold key posts.

Michigan Rep. John Conyers heads the Judiciary Committee, giving him a key say on immigration and refugee matters. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York now chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, which steersU.S. trade policy, among other matters. One member of that committee is U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, who is traveling to Haiti today to discuss immigration issues with President René Préval and the U.S. ambassador in Port-au-Prince.

''I want to make sure we are doing everything we need to do, and he's doing everything he has to do, to prevent Haitians from taking to the sea,'' said Meek, who has proposed several fixes in the sweeping immigration reform bill chugging through Congress to help many Haitians already here legalize their status.

Up the Ladder

Key Haiti supporters outside the Congressional Black Caucus have also advanced to important positions.

Rep. Nita Lowey of New York chairs a subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee that allots money for foreign-aid programs that affect Haiti. Another New Yorker, Rep. Eliot Engel, heads the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Last month, he invited Haitian hip-hop star Wyclef Jean to testify on aid to Haiti before the subcommittee.

'I cannot think of a country or subject more deserving of Congress' full and sustained attention than our neighbor, Haiti,'' Engel said at the March 13 hearing.

In recent years, the Republican Party has actively courted Haitian Americans, with Jeb Bush forming a task force of prominent Haitians and Haiti supporters to improve relations between Florida and the troubled Caribbean nation, and leading a delegation to Préval's inauguration last year. But while Haitian-American Republicans and Haiti's private sector used their budding clout with the GOP to lobby for the HOPE Act, critics say they failed to focus attention on the strict U.S. policy of returning undocumented migrants to Haiti.

In 2001, the Bush administration changed policy to keep in detention undocumented Haitian migrants who could prove a ''credible fear'' of persecution if deported, instead of releasing them pending further immigration procedures. ''There is no question that the Republican Party basically was paying lip service in its efforts to increase its ranks by seemingly going after the Haitian-American community,'' said Phillip Brutus, a Haitian-American Democrat and former state lawmaker.

The Black Caucus was no better, Brutus added. ''They should have been the ones to put the press release out,'' after the Hallandale Beach arrivals, he said. 'They should have been the ones to say, `Let's take a stand on behalf of these poor black folk who look like us.' ''

Divisions Persist

Another part of the problem is the class and political divisions in the Haitian-American community.

There is a small but growing affluent and professional class, with one foot planted in the United States and the other in Haiti and more likely to be Republicans, while the poorer majority is more likely to be aligned with Democrats.

And then there is the rift over Aristide, seen by some as a champion of the poor who was forced out of office by the Bush administration and by others who viewed him as a demagogue.

Regardless of those differences, Haitian migrants deserve better, said Meek, a Democrat who represents the largest bloc of Haitian-American voters and has consistently taken on U.S. immigration policy on behalf of Haitians.

Meek said that while he supports the wet foot/dry foot policy that allows Cuban migrants who set foot on U.S. territory to remain, Haitians should receive equal treatment.

''Those of us who live here in South Florida and Florida . . . get a hard dose of reality every time we have Haitian immigrants get to the shores,'' he said. ``It's polarizing for our community. We need to be patriotic about Haitian nationals.''

Last week, Miami Archbishop John C. Favalora called the difference in the U.S. treatment of undocumented Cubans and Haitians an ``apartheid situation.''

On Sunday, Haitian activists joined with Brothers to the Rescue, a humanitarian group that used to scour the Florida Straits for Cuban rafters, in a prayer vigil and Catholic Mass at Ermita de la Caridad in Coconut Grove on behalf of the Haitian migrants.

Meek's relations with some of the Haitian-American community's most vocal activists have grown lukewarm in recent months, however. Some of the activists supported Meek's Haitian-American challenger in the November election and claimed on Creole-language radio that he has done nothing for the community.

As a result, political observers in South Florida have wondered whether Meek would champion the community's cause with the same passion as in the past.

''My motivations are not political,'' said Meek, who immediately wrote letters to immigration officials on behalf of the Hallandale Beach arrivals. ``I represent a community of struggle that is trying to seek justice when it comes to the application of U.S. law.''

Copyright 2007 Miami Herald Media Co. Reprinted from The Miami Herald of Monday, April 2007.

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