Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign featured a persistent attack on immigrants. So as a Haitian immigrant, I was surprised when candidate Trump praised our values and work ethic and declared to a crowd of Haitian Americans in Miami’s Little Haiti, “I really want to be your greatest champion.”
Apparently, Trump’s public declaration of love for Haitians — conveniently stated at an anti-Hillary Clinton rally — was contradicted by his private beliefs. The New York Times recently reported that he allegedly fumed at a Cabinet meeting on immigration in June that Haitians “all have AIDS.” (He also reportedly claimed that Nigerians would never go “back to their huts.”)
Even though the White House has disputed the report, it’s clearly not a great stretch to think that he did say such things. These comments are consistent with his characterization of other immigrant groups as drug dealers, rapists and potential terrorists.
Such a negative view would help explain why his administration decided last month to expel 59,000 Haitians living in the United States under temporary protected status (TPS) after the disasters of the 2010 earthquake that killed some 300,000 Haitians and the devastation of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The Trump administration insisted that the emergency no longer existed, despite the prevailing view of most experts (and politicians from his own Republican Party) that impoverished Haiti is not ready to absorb such a large number of Haitians who have lived abroad for so long.
Trump may think of Haitians as a disease, but the reality is that we’ve helped make America great. More than 700,000 Haitians live in the United States (the actual number may be double the official tally), and they have plenty of success stories to counter Trump’s narrow view. I serve on the board of a Haitian American organization that identifies and celebrates the success of Haitian immigrants in America. We are university presidents, doctors, lawyers, journalists, professors, teachers, nurses, NFL stars, office workers and cabdrivers.
Haitian Americans and those of Haitian descent have been elected to city and state governments in Massachusetts, Illinois and Florida and even to Congress (e.g. Rep. Mia Love, Republican of Utah). President Barack Obama’s last ambassador to South Africa came to America as a child with his Haitian parents.
Trump is not the first person to link Haitians to HIV/AIDS. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first noticed cases of the disease among Haitians in the 1980s, it noted that risk factors were different from those in the United States, where the disease was associated with gays and intravenous drug users. Haitians as a group were classified as particularly at risk. For several years, all Haitians — even those of us who had grown up in the United States — were barred from giving blood. After vigorous protests by Haitians, the conclusion of researchers was deemed an error; cultural taboos had Haitians denying to researchers that they had engaged in prostitution, gay sex or drug use. New evidence led to removal of the hurtful stigma. Trump doesn’t appear to have received the second memo.
Trump should actually be quite familiar with Haitians. His native New York has long been a haven for Haitian Americans, going back to the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s. Pierre Toussaint was brought to New York by a slave owner escaping the growing unrest in what was then a French Caribbean colony. Toussaint eventually was freed and became a major financial contributor to the construction of the original Saint Patrick’s church in lower Manhattan. The Vatican has started the process to make him a saint for his many charitable works. You’d think that one builder would have respect for another.
But we Haitians are accustomed to being seen as pariahs. Because Haiti freed itself from French rule and permanently abolished slavery 60 years before the United States, it was viewed with fear and suspicion in the 19th century by the slave-owning nations that surrounded it. Some Southern newspapers even barred any mention of Haiti. The young nation was forced to pay a vast indemnity to France for the empire’s lost slaves and plantations, a burden that put Haiti on a long-term path to poverty.
As black immigrants to the United States, Haitians have not always been as welcome as others. But we have made the best of opportunities in America by overcoming obstacles. One fickle champion will not stop us.
Joel Dreyfuss is a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist.