NORTH MIAMI — You might think Haitian Americans are completely ginned up to vote against the president who called their former homeland a “sh**hole” country. But politics among the diaspora are never that simple, with often conflicting loyalties and agendas.
Immigration policy is part of it, insiders say, with Haitian voters making a calculus about whom to support: A vote for Joe Biden is seen as a vote to restore immigration policies friendly to Haitian exiles. Meanwhile, a vote for Donald Trump, some argue, is a vote for a president who won’t care enough to meddle in the affairs back home.
Other Haitian Americans insist immigration has nothing to do with it. They’re debating which candidate will be better for all Black Americans on issues like coronavirus response, the economy and healthcare. Others are voting for conservative values and someone that will strengthen the economy.
In Florida — home of razor-thin election outcomes — Haitian-American leaders are making a final push to get heavily Haitian, mostly Democratic areas to turn out for the former vice president. And as they do that, they’re facing a small, but growing number of their compatriots mobilizing for the president.
Local Democrats worry that more will vote for Trump in 2020 than in 2016, despite his controversial moves to cut immigration pathways for Haitians and insulting Haiti with an expletive. Meanwhile, Haitian Trump supporters are confident that this time around, they’ll see stronger numbers for the president.
“People don’t want to believe it but yeah, a lot of churches are organizing for Trump,” said Marleine Bastien, a longtime Haitian community activist and executive director of the Family Action Network Movement, which represents Haitian women and children.
“They are very aggressive. They’re not just organizing their base but they’re also reaching out to Democrats,” Bastien said, who’s backing Biden.
In 2016, Trump won about 20 percent of the Haitian vote, according to an analysis of data from University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith. This year, Haitians for Trump are marshalling new voters by pitching the president as a businessman who will bring more jobs to the Black community. A vote for him, they argue, is a rejection of Democratic pandering.
The Biden campaign has tried to distance the Democrat from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Some Haitians have long argued that Clinton, former President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation profited off of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and they failed to help rebuild the country.
That distrust showed in 2016 turnout. In 2016, heavily Haitian precincts in Miami-Dade had a markedly lower turnout compared to overall county numbers, according to Smith.
“This is a night and day response from this campaign compared to 2016,” said Karen Andre, a senior adviser to Biden who’s Haitian American. “The Haitian community left from that cycle feeling they were not adequately addressed. However, that’s far from the case [now].”
Haitian-Americans backing Trump argue that he has followed through on his 2016 promise to be their “greatest champion.” On Thursday, they held a virtual “Haitians for Trump MAGA Meet-up” with Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr., an evangelist and enthusiastic Trump supporter.
“We connected the community with the Truths,” organizer Madgie Nicolas tweeted. “Haitians are RESILIENT, follow @HaitianForTrump growing massively ready to reelect POTUS @realdonaldtrump.”
The Haitians for Trump Twitter page has more than 400 followers, while an Ayisyen pou Biden Twitter account has more than 220 followers. But some insiders note much of the Haitians for Trump action is on WhatsApp, which is popular among immigrant communities.
Some posts on the Haitians for Trump Twitter page and a separately run Facebook page call Haitian support of the president “Hexit” — a reference to Brexit. Haitians are “ready for #HEXIT”, one tweet in Creole said, urging them to “never again waste a vote on a Democrat.”
“I can proudly say I expect us to get about 30 percent this time. A lot, especially from the younger generation. And it’s part of the power of the Haitian community — we all are invested in politics in different ways,” said Hans Mardy, a Haitian-American Republican activist.
But community leaders say the 2020 fight goes beyond whether Haitian Americans will vote for Biden or Trump — it’s whether they’ll vote at all. With days until the election, they’re reminding their community, which counts with upwards of 350,000 in Florida, that they, too, are a serious voting bloc worthy of the same attention as Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans and other diaspora communities.
Between the pandemic and fatigue from the polarization of politics in 2020, many could stay home. Covid further complicates turnout for Haitians, one of the largest foreign-born groups from the Caribbean in the United States. Those who would traditionally vote after going to church on Sunday are now confined to virtual or socially distanced services.
Leaders like Bastien say they’re concerned about young college-aged Haitian Americans who may feel left out of the process.
“There’s a lot of young people supporting Trump,” Bastien said. “And this is a reality.”
Bastien and other leaders, however, also insist showing up at the polls is what matters most.
“It’s about coming out big,” said North Miami Mayor Philippe Bien-Aime, a Democrat who grew up in Haiti. “We want candidates to know our importance as a major voting group.”
“But for that we have to vote.”
“We’re just getting our feet wet”
Haitian Americans tend to vote Democrat, regardless of socioeconomic standing and whether they were born in the U.S. or Haiti. About a third of them are based in Miami-Dade County, a liberal bastion that Biden needs if he hopes to win the state. But despite those numbers, Haitian Americans have long felt frustrated by a lack of significant engagement from both Democrats and Republicans.
They’ve been settling in the United States since the 1930s, but it has been over the past 30 years that their numbers have significantly increased in Miami. Today, about half of them live in Florida, and almost 20 percent live in New York.
“We’re a growing immigrant community and we’re just getting our feet wet in this process in America,” said Sandy Dorsainvil, a longtime Haitian American community leader, who is supporting Biden.
Haiti is the first Black republic, where enslaved Africans famously overthrew white enslavers in 1804. But after the revolution, a color-based caste system emerged, with a small contingent of wealthy, mixed-race people at the top and poorer, darker skinned Haitians at the bottom. Today, that tension continues to play out in Florida politics, insiders say, particularly on Creole language radio stations, where local political candidates duke it out.
And their political interests don’t always align with African Americans or other Caribbean immigrant communities as they tend to be more conservative and willing to vote Republican. Mia Love, the first black woman Republican elected to Congress, for example, is Haitian-American.
There’s little data to show exactly how many Haitian-Americans live and vote in Florida because some of Haitian descent may now identify as African American, experts say. But analysts estimate there are more than 100,000 Haitian-born, naturalized U.S. citizens registered to vote in the state. And whatever their political affiliations, it’s clear the community — which has tripled in size over the past 30 years — has matured politically and wants to be courted as both a strong Black and immigrant voting bloc.
“If there was a doubt in the minds of the Haitian community of whether or not their vote was important, it was erased when President Obama came to North Miami, which has the highest concentration of Haitian Americans in the country, right after Biden went to Little Haiti,” Dorsainvil said.
Biden’s campaign has made it a point to court Haitian-American voters, visiting Little Haiti last month, running targeted English and Creole ads and having surrogates frequently on Haitian radio to draw support. The campaign, despite being stunted in its ground game due to the pandemic, has held several smaller events in person and virtually in recent months to build support and share Biden’s plan for Haitians — which includes a pathway to citizenship for temporary protected status (TPS) recipients, the same program Trump sought to end.
Drive through Little Haiti, a neighborhood built by working class Haitian immigrants, shows that much of the focus has been on local races and simply getting out the vote. The neighborhood, despite facing gentrification in recent years, remains the clear heart of the community with Haitian flags, murals and restaurants lined up on the main strip. There, few Biden/Harris signs are on display compared to dozens for a local commissioners race and the competitive county mayor’s race, as well as ones in Creole urging residents to vote.
Meanwhile, over in heavily Haitian North Miami, there’s more visible enthusiasm for Biden with “Ayisyen pou Biden/Harris” [Haitians for Biden/Harris] signs on display in the area surrounding an early voting site. But still, the ground game is largely centered on the county’s nonpartisan mayoral race, where Daniella Levine Cava, a Democratic county commissioner that founded community-based nonprofit Catalyst Miami, is running against Republican county commissioner Esteban Bovo.
“I don’t have the sense we have a strong field operation because everyone has been sitting behind the computer this year. And that complicates [it], because part of voting in the community is tied to that Sunday after church going to vote — not mailing in a ballot,” Bien-Aime said, referring to part of the Haitian community’s deep ties to religion.
So far, more than 24,000 ballots have been cast at the two early voting sites closest to Little Haiti and in North Miami as of Thursday morning, according to Miami-Dade Election Department figures. The North Miami location is in the top 10 sites with the highest early voting turnout out of 33 sites in the county.
Recently, Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump met with several Haitian pastors as part of her effort to court more religious voters to back the president’s reelection bid.
Nicolas, chair of Haitians for Trump, has also led multiple in-person and virtual events to build support for Trump. In September, she worked with Kevin Daniels, the Republican National Committee’s head of African American engagement, to host a roundtable with Haitian clergymen and celebrate the launch of Haitians for Trump Victory as a coalition.
Trump “may not be a saint, but he’s the fearless leader our country so desperately needs,” Nicolas said. “We have always been the forgotten community.”
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