Micki Morency was horrified as she watched reports of thousands of men, women and children from Haiti subsisting in crowded, unsanitary conditions under a Texas bridge.
She had a similar reaction as she later learned that many were being methodically sent back to Haiti, which was reeling from yet another natural disaster and political upheaval.
The situation has been a prime topic on WhatsApp among members of the Haitian Association of Tampa Bay, even as they organize relief efforts to ease the suffering caused by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake on Aug. 14 and a tropical depression that followed soon after.
It weighs on her mind, Morency says, as she thinks of fellow-Haitians embarking on the perilous journey across South and Central America and venturing into the Rio Grande for a chance to live and work and give their children a safe home in the United States.
She refutes allegations of those who say Haitians converging on the U.S. border are criminals and dismisses their hysterics about the migrants being allowed to enter the country to be considered for asylum. “They are terrified that these people are in their midst,” the St. Petersburg resident said. “They are not criminals.”
Some are families expecting babies. They must appear before immigration in 60 days. A requirement of their release into the U.S. is that someone must take responsibility for them, “With a name and address and phone number,” Morency said. “There is some accountability.”
Further, she said, taxpayers are not paying for migrants to get on planes or buses to take them to relatives and friends. “The detainees that are allowed to leave, they must have their own means of transportation and it’s being provided by Haitians in the community and organizations. For the most part, the family members who are taking them don’t have the money to buy a ticket on the spot.”
Civil Rights organizations and Black immigrant groups are angry at the way Haitians are being treated and have been especially furious about images of Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing migrants trying to cross the Rio Grande into the U.S.
NAACP president Derrick Johnson and Nana Gyamfi, executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, issued a statement after meeting with the White House. They called the situation with Haitian refugees “a humanitarian crisis of the gravest proportion” that “makes a mockery of the American promise.”
Further indictment came with the resignation of Daniel Foote, U.S. special envoy for Haiti. In a scathing letter, he issued a warning: “The people of Haiti, mired in poverty, hostage to the terror, kidnappings, robberies and massacres of armed gangs and suffering under a corrupt government with gang alliances, simply cannot support the forced infusion of thousands of returned migrants lacking food, shelter, and money without additional, avoidable human tragedy … Surging migration to our borders will only grow as we add to Haiti’s unacceptable misery.”
But the scenes of desperation on the southern border haven’t engendered universal sympathy. Earlier this week, Florida sued the Biden administration over its immigration policy. The Associated Press quoted the suit as stating that while some migrants have legitimate asylum claims, many do not. “Some are gang members and drug traffickers exploiting the crisis at the border,” the suit said, “as evidenced by the skyrocketing amount of Fentanyl seized at the border this year.”
We’ve heard similar insults thrown at immigrants and would-be immigrants in recent years.
They’re a good reason for sharing the story of Morency’s Haitian-American family. Her parents left Haiti in the 1970s with precious work visas. They brought their children – seven in all – to America a year after they’d settled in. Morency’s mother worked as a cook for a convent in Boston. Her father had a job in maintenance there. All of their children went to college.
Locally, Morency’s brother, Richard Berthelot, joined the St. Petersburg Police Department. He is now retired, but was a popular school resource officer at St. Petersburg High School for 19 years. A sister, Marlene Berthelot, who was a former Pinellas County teacher, went back to Haiti to build a school and orphanage. Both were destroyed during the devastating 2010 earthquake. Though she was unable to rebuild, she continued to support the children.
Morency – a writer whose debut novel, The Island Sisters, will be published by BHC Press in 2023 – and her husband, Dr. Yves Morency, brought up their children, now adults, in St. Petersburg’s quaint Driftwood neighborhood. They left the city for a while, but returned a few years ago.
“As an immigrant, I am always proud of working hard. Along the way, there was always someone willing to show you the way. It’s not just Haitians, it’s immigrants. We come here with a purpose. One thing is the importance of education. My mother always used to say, I have no money to leave you, no inheritance, but I want you to have an education,” she said.
“These people that you see under the bridge that look like yesterday’s refuse, they have dreams. They are not coming to go on welfare. They want jobs. They want the jobs that Americans don’t want.”
John Dubrule, a St. Petersburg immigration attorney, has a number of Haitian clients. Though some have come through Texas, none are from the Del Rio, Texas, border group.
“We have a surge of people who are coming from South America, from Chile, in particular, that have left there because of discrimination that they have suffered there. The feeling is that it’s not an option for them” to remain in that country, Dubrule said.
“I had similar stories from people who were from Brazil. People are moving north and originally, many of these people who are coming to me fled because of some sort of political violence, either to them or a family member being abused or killed in Haiti.”
He said his clients had been detained and released after undergoing “a credible fear interview” by immigration authorities. They explained why they’re afraid to return to Haiti and have been given an opportunity to pursue asylum in the United States.
“We have dozens of asylum seekers in the Tampa Bay area,” said Dubrule, who has law offices in downtown St. Petersburg, Bradenton and Tampa.
The asylum process can take years. As an example, Dubrule has cases scheduled for 2024 in the Orlando immigration office.
Here’s what Americans should understand about Haitian migrants, he said. “There’s probably a feeling that they are all economic refugees. I think people in general don’t understand the political turmoil that seems to be the day-to-day life in Haiti.”
Making a new life is challenging for new arrivals, Morency said. “It’s hard for them in America, struggling with the culture and language. I personally feel an obligation to give back, because I have been given this opportunity to come here and I have taken the opportunities. Along the way, people have taken the time, teachers, mentors, to guide me.”
This land has always been a sanctuary, a place of refuge: Cubans getting away from Castro; Irish citizens fleeing famine; Jewish people escaping anti-Semitism. They and other immigrants represent an idealized America that has drawn to its bosom the world’s tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The question that must be faced is whether those who have been fortunate to be let in – that’s the majority of hyphenated Americans – will generously make room for more.