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#2736: Coalition protects Haitians' rights (fwd)


Published Monday, March 6, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 Coalition protects Haitians' rights
 Common ground is their goal  BY SANDRA MARQUEZ GARCIA

 They are a group of self-described cultural hybrids. Born in Haiti,
educated on both sides of the Florida Straits, they are now married
 and living with children in the suburbs of Miami-Dade and Broward
counties. Passionate and forty-something, they are small-business
owners, social workers, teachers, lawyers and activists who casually
slip in and out of Creole and English. Meet the Haitian American
Grassroots Coalition.

 Formed out of a lobbying effort two years ago that mobilized more than
100 Haitian Americans to march on Washington for immigration rights, the
coalition has grown into an umbrella group of some 15 organizations.
 At monthly meetings in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, group members
plot strategies to protect the immigration rights of the estimated one
million Haitian Americans living in this country. The coalition
considers the return of the Rhinvil children as its latest success. The
 two children were sent back to Haiti by the U.S. Coast Guard after
their mother was admitted into this country for medical treatment
following a perilous New Year's smuggling trip to Miami. But the group's
membership mirrors Haiti's politically polarized society and those
 divisions pose a constant threat to their success, chairman Jean Robert
Lafortune said. ``In the coalition, you have all the tendencies,''
Lafortune, 43, said. ``You have both Republicans and Democrats. You have
both conservatives and progressives. You have both pro-Aristide and
anti-Aristide. I would say that is the real fragility of the coalition.
 ``We are not a group of friends. That is what I tell everybody,'' he
said. ``It is some sort of amalgam of Haiti. But once we are together,
we are trying to focus on the fair treatment of Haitian refugees and
community empowerment.''


 Sitting around a conference table comprised of ideological opposites
can be uncomfortable -- and even downright hostile at times, members
say. But they keep coming together, motivated by a common awareness that
their future lies here and not in the fractious terrain of their
homeland. ``Before the coalition got started, Haitian leadership was
very fragmented, very individualistic,'' noted Lafortune, a community
organizer for Miami-Dade County. ``The difference is that we agree we
have to meet each other halfway.'' In recent elections, thousands of
newly naturalized Haitian-American voters have delivered strong showings
for their peers running in statewide races. But so far in Florida,
Haitian-American elected representation is confined to the
municipalities of El Portal -- the first city in the nation to have a
Haitian-American majority on its city council -- and North Miami.


 Leonie Hermantin, executive director of the Haitian American
Foundation, said the lack of leadership at the state and national level
creates a puzzling dilemma: Who is authorized to speak on behalf of the
community? This can at times lead to a snail-paced organizational
structure in the coalition where power sharing is sometimes interpreted
as a need for total unanimity. But Hermantin insists on moving past the
personal squabbles. ``It's about respect for our community,'' Hermantin
said. ``It's about not being taken for granted. It's about all of us.'
 Hermantin, 41, said she woke up to the dire living conditions of
Haitian Americans once the ``postcard'' effect of Miami's Little Haiti
community wore off. An urban planner who moved to South Miami from
Berkeley with her husband and two children in 1994, Hermantin said she
became immediately enamored by the pastel-colored homes and street
vendors that dot residential neighborhoods near Biscayne Boulevard and
79th Avenue.


 The images brought back memories of the house where she grew up in the
middle class suburb of Petionville in Haiti's capital and the provincial
architecture in her grandmother's hometown of Petit Goave. ``I was
looking at it like a tourist, not realizing that the reason why it
looked so much like Haiti was the poverty,'' Hermantin said.
 Statistics from the 1990 Census offered a more complete picture:
Whereas the per capita income of Miami-Dade residents stood at $15,000,
Little Haiti residents earned only $5,000. Hermantin said the numbers
led her to stop regarding Little Haiti as an ``enchanting little
neighborhood in Miami,'' and instead began to focus on the ``inequality
and abject poverty.'' The Grassroots Coalition would become a vehicle
for her activism. The battle to have Haitians included in proposed
legislation to grant green cards to 150,000 Cubans and Nicaraguans was
the catalyst for the coalition. On Oct. 30, 1997, more than 100 Haitian
Americans from Miami and New York descended on the nation's capital to
demand equal protection before the law.


 Marleine Bastien, a social worker, songwriter and activist who is
president of Haitian Women of Miami, describes the experience as a
transforming moment. ``There was such energy. There was such pride to be
there and to do for ourselves,'' Bastien, 40, recalled. ``That was an
experience that was so rewarding.'' Haitians were not included in the
resulting Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act in
November 1997. But the coalition and its key supporters -- U.S. Rep.
Carrie Meek, D-Miami, U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, and U.S.
 Sen. Connie Mack, R-Florida -- were rewarded nearly a year later when
Congress passed a last-minute measure granting legal residency to almost
50,000 Haitians living in the United States. The coalition was back in
the media spotlight last month after a boat carrying more than 400
smuggled Haitians arrived off Key Biscayne shortly after midnight
 on New Year's Eve. Acting swiftly, coalition members organized protests
-- complete with black coffins to represent those who perished on board
-- calling on the Immigration and Naturalization Service to give equal
treatment to Haitian and Cuban refugees.


 Members also conducted a letter and phone campaign urging U.S. Attorney
 General Janet Reno to reunite Marc and Germanie Rhinvil, siblings aged
10 and 8, who were repatriated back to Haiti after their pregnant mother
was allowed to remain in Florida for medical reasons. Within weeks, the
Rhinvil children flew to Miami, where they remain pending the outcome of
their mother's political asylum request. Coalition members are now ready
to branch out into other issues, such as Census participation, economic
development, families and schools. ``We are not just satisfied with
immigration issue,'' Hermantin said.

 Gepsie Metellus, director of Public Affairs for Miami-Dade Commissioner
Barbara Carey-Shuler, said the coalition's next challenge is to reach
out to the ``silent majority'' in the Haitian community who shun local
politics. ``We are very lucky in that we have achieved so much in very
little time,'' Metellus, 39, said. ``We don't have the economic clout
that we dream of, but we are poised to have it if we do our homework and
we know our history and the history of various other groups.''


 As the coalition expands, members are taking a close look at the
experience of their neighbors. ``We are learning not only from the Cuban
community,'' said Lafortune, the group's chairman. ``We are learning
from the Jewish community. We are learning from the African-American
community. In fact, we are learning from everyone.' Non-Haitian members
of the coalition -- including immigration lawyers Cheryl Little
 and Steve Forester and union organizer Monica Russo -- also lend their
skills and vision. ``That has been one of the wonderful things about it:
A lot of different voices have come together and have agreed about the
important issues,'' said Little, executive director of the Florida
Immigrant Advocacy Center. The upcoming December presidential election
in Haiti could provide the first big test of the coalition's commitment
to remain focused on issues here at home. Former President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide -- a Catholic priest turned politician who was overthrown in a
military coup and restored to office in a U.S.-led intervention
 in 1994 -- is widely expected to make a reelection bid. In Haitian
families, one's stance on Aristide can be a dividing line that
determines loyalty, and the coalition is no exception, Lafortune said.
 ``That's what I call the Achilles' heel of the coalition,'' he said.
``I don't think it will be a big problem. The big issue is all about
focusing. In the coming months, March, April and June, the coalition is
going to focus very much on the legislative process.''