WASHINGTON — Haitian American politicians from across the United States, anxious to exert some influence over U.S. immigration laws, have forged an alliance in hopes of shaping legislation and policy toward Haiti.
The push for a stronger voice on national immigration issues comes as Haitian Americans — mostly Democrats who hailed President Barack Obama’s election — have become increasingly frustrated that the administration has not moved faster to give undocumented Haitians a chance to temporarily stay in the U.S. and work.
The National Haitian American Elected Officials Network, formed by 22 elected officials from Florida to New Hampshire, met for the first time last month in Washington to discuss immigration legislation and U.S. policy and aid toward Haiti.
Despite its fledgling status and size, the group of state lawmakers, mayors and city council members managed to attract a handful of power players, including officials with U.S. aid agencies and Obama’s Haiti-born political director, Patrick Gaspard, to its two-day conference.
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“You stay persistent,” urged Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, one of several members of Congress who addressed the group. “Remember, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.”
Observers and politicians involved in the effort to launch the network suggest its formation could mark a new chapter for an often fractious community that has not wielded significant political clout, particularly at the national level.
“This is the budding stage,” Hastings said. “It’s never going to be the most powerful delegation, but Haiti needs all the voices it can find.”
The group got its start last spring in conversations between state Rep. Marie St. Fleur, a Massachusetts Democrat who in 1999 became the first Haitian-American elected at the state level, and North Miami City Clerk Alix Desulme.
The two chatted at a White House Caribbean reception last spring and Desulme said that the idea for the group formed after “listening to the same kind of rhetoric on immigration policy” from administration officials.
“We were thinking we need to get more involved,” Desulme said. “The idea was that all of us getting together as elected officials would be stronger than anything we could do individually.”
St. Fleur said she had talked about pulling together elected officials for several years but began working in earnest after the conversation with Desulme.
“Decisions are being made without our input, and it’s time for that to end,” she said. “Collectively, we bring valuable experience and background that can help shape Haiti policy.”
St. Fleur said the group wanted to be operational before lawmakers and the White House take up efforts to revamp the nation’s immigration laws. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said earlier this month that the administration backs a path to legalization for the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants and expects Congress to take up an immigration overhaul in 2010.
“We want to be at the table and to be there, you have to put yourself there,” LeFleur said. During the initial meeting on Oct. 29-30, the group hammered out policy recommendations it plans to share with the administration and Congress.
Among them: an immigration overhaul that includes a path to legalization for undocumented Haitians in the U.S.; Temporary Protective Status for an estimated 30,000 Haitians now facing deportation; including Haitian American elected officials in the development of U.S. funding and policy priorities for Haiti; and better accountability for U.S.-funded projects in Haiti.