Haitian Refugees: Are we missing a teachable lesson?

HOUSTON – While working in Social Services for the last 10 years of my employment at Harris County, I would often ask workers that qualified citizens for emergency assistance such as rental and utility assistance whether they have serviced any Haitians. The answer would always be No.

The Haitian immigrant story is below the radar when speaking of successful immigrant resettlement. Usually, the conversation du jour is about South Asians and Hispanics. However, a strong case can be made that in Houston, no immigrant group has been more successful at pursuing the mercurial American dream than the Haitians No, not the Vietnamese, nor the Hmong groups from Cambodia and Laos.
In 1980, the late Congressman Mickey Leland convened a group of citizens to begin advocacy and launch a concrete plan for Houston to receive Haitian refugees. Daily reports of human misery, drowning of men, women and children and overcrowded morgues in Miami were prominent in the media.

In behalf of this ad hoc humanitarian relief effort, Leland and the committee sent me to Miami to assess the situation. I camped in Little Haiti and was stunned by the images and testimony that I received. The visit to the morgue transfixed me. When I returned to Houston and gave my reports, there was no hesitation about immediately providing relief.
We cooperated with Church World Services and leaders from local anchor institutions matched resources with their big hearts. Hospitals in the medical center, nursing homes through the communities, city and state government and churches brought all hands-on deck and opened their hearts and bank accounts. Through the good will of Rep. Leland and his cohorts, pillars of the community led by Ms. Hawkins began to provide housing and employment. Many of the Haitians who ventured the high seas on vessels that were not sea- worthy have now retired from active work from the University of Texas Hospital System and the City of Houston.
Perhaps, what is most memorable is that all of the Haitians pushed back strongly against food stamps and welfare. To a man and a woman, they desired the dignity of employment so that they could support their family and begin remittances to their loved ones in Haiti. Without hesitation, Haitians gladly took unskilled jobs such as laundry and janitorial helpers, parks and recreation –flood control workers. Mosquitoes and near 100-degree temperatures were not a deterrent, only a formidable challenge that they were eager to meet.

This is all significant because of the disproportional and inequitable response to the black refugees from Haiti. For example, Cuban refugee of any hue only had to reach American soil to attain a political refugee status. If Haitians made it to land, a new status was applied, entrant. Although, they were fleeing a brutal dictatorship led by Papa Doc Duvalier, the United States argued that they were coming to these shores for economic reasons (jobs). Haitians who were intercepted on the high seas were interdicted and repatriated, but not Cubans.

Nevertheless, Haitians have come to a nation of immigrants and have become near perfect citizens. They have successfully assimilated. These Haitians are now bullish on America and think that this country is exceptional despite its imperfections. They never saw the sonnet at Ellis Island that asks for the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, the tempest tossed.

In behalf of the thousands of Haitians that are proud to be part of this global salad, thanks.

In behalf of the courageous Houstonians who stepped out on faith and love, we are thankful for the extraordinary grace and mercy that led us to stand in the gap for boats that were temporarily stuck on the bottom.

Indeed, the politics of the 1980’s immigration crisis was somewhat complex. Perhaps, after three and a half decades there is a teachable lesson for us to learn and apply. Should it mind that the black refugees from Haiti swam against the tide and pushed through dangerous riptides.