'You support those who raised and took care of you on the island'
DELRAY BEACH-- His dusty fields no longer produced enough crops to eat,
much less sell. The roads were so bad that, even in a good
year, his harvests rotted before they made it to market. His wife was ill and needed medical treatment, but he had neither food nor money.
So, in 1989, Pierre Aristil boarded an old fishing boat crowded with
other farmers from Haiti's once-bountiful Artibonite Valley and headed
for Delray Beach -- the promised land for those fleeing a wasteland.
Today, Aristil lives in a hot, dingy house in a working-class neighborhood
with five men who immigrated with him. All are landscapers who
make a modest living trimming trees, pruning gardens and mowing golf courses in southern Palm Beach County.
Like tens of thousands of others living in Haitian-American communities
stretching from Miami to Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach,
these lonely farmers send most of their paychecks home to support extended families of wives, children, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles
whom they hope some day to sponsor as American citizens.
Aristil keeps a thick packet of blue-colored receipts showing weekly
wire transfers of $50, $100 and $200 to his family. In a good week, he
and the other laborers send as much as 90 percent of their salary home.
"It's just something you know in the Artibonite -- that Delray Beach,
Lake Worth, is the place to go to find farm jobs," says Aristil, who at
has a rock-solid build. "The land [in Haiti] is just becoming so hard to farm, nothing really grows anymore, so it's either Delray or the
It is a choice that lands hundreds of Haitians here every year, adding
to the thousands of ties that bind South Florida to Haiti. In an age of
globalization and shrinking boundaries, the 700 miles separating South Florida and Port-au-Prince have never seemed so few, the ties never
As Haiti's problems have deepened, Florida's Haitian community has swelled
in numbers, economic strength and political clout and is now the
largest documented in the world outside Haiti.
In the last decade, the number of residents of Haitian origin in Florida
has grown from 105,495 to some 267,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
percent, or 185,000, live in the tri-county region of South Florida. Community leaders suspect the true number is closer to 500,000.
Residents range from the dirt-poor farmers who trim trees and mow lawns
across the region to young urban professionals working as managers, teachers
Few Haitian-Americans are more than a generation removed from the island, and virtually all are well aware of the ordeals there.
The enclave in Delray Beach was founded by the poorest of the poor:
hardscrabble farmers and field hands fleeing the Dust Bowl-like conditions
of Haiti's main
The land first drew them, specifically the vast agricultural tracts
along the Everglades that move northward toward the sugar farms in Belle
Glade. Since 1980, when
the first Haitians arrived in the wake of the Mariel Boatlift that brought 120,000 Cubans to Florida's shores, the community has grown dramatically.
For migrants from the Artibonite -- a vast, swampy plain carved up by
irrigation canals that closely resembles western Palm Beach County -- Delray
Beach today is
what the Bronx was to earlier generations of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants. It has a larger percentage of Haitians living within its borders than any other town in
the United States.
Delray Beach is a primary link in a process demographers call "chain
migration" -- built on the family and friendship ties that draw more refugees
to a certain place.
The first stop for many immigrants may be a restaurant, a factory or a farm in a single city. Eventually the population grows large enough to form its own internal
economy and community, supporting shops that specialize in goods and services that cater to immigrants.
Aristil arrived in Miami in 1989 and spent a year in the Krome detention
center, a facility that houses illegal immigrants in South Florida. He
then was released to live
with his uncle in Miami. He obtained a work permit, but there were few jobs in Miami-Dade County for farmers. So Aristil eventually made his way to a cousin's
house in Lake Worth.
There, other Haitian men taught him the plant nursery business, and
he began to work as a laborer, landscaping yards in the suburban tracts
where even the poorest
workers earn 50 times the income of a typical Haitian -- about $400 a year.
Not all Haitians have fared as well.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, have drowned off the Florida coast trying
to reach Delray Beach. Others have leaped off boats, scrambled up private
hailed cabs along State Road A1A with wet dollars and the scrawled addresses of relatives who live around Delray's Atlantic Avenue.
Between 1991 and 1995, some 70,000 Haitian refugees were interdicted
at sea while trying to reach South Florida. Tens of thousands were temporarily
tent cities at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba. Many were returned to Haiti.
Those who remained gained residency under the Haitian Refugee Immigration
Fairness Act, a 1998 law enacted to allow 49,800 Haitian immigrants to
stay in the
United States legally. Thousands more are undocumented and live here in legal limbo. Most left the island primarily for economic reasons and do not qualify for
political asylum -- the main criteria by which Haitian refugees are accepted into the United States.
Aristil says he left Haiti because his land was not producing crops anymore.
"The more years that went by, the less productive the land, the soil,
becomes," says Aristil, who worked several acres of land outside of Gonaives.
"In the [early]
1980s, it was very productive. But that's only part of it. There's no electricity. There's no roads, really. They've collapsed because of the raining and flooding. I don't
know where the United States would begin if they tried to rebuild the place."
MORE MAKE THE JOURNEY
In recent years, economic and agricultural woes rooted in Haiti's budding environmental problems have pushed many refugees to flee to Florida's shores.
Between 1956 and 1985, the United States issued more than 1 million
entry visas to Haitians, including many of the island's skilled, literate
and affluent citizens. An
estimated 500,000 Haitians overstayed their visas to establish residence in the United States. By the early 1980s, growing numbers of poor Haitians from the
country's rural regions also began making the perilous journey to the United States.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, between 50,000 and 80,000 Haitians
arrived illegally in Florida. In 1981, up to 1,000 Haitians arrived in
South Florida every
month. Many became early residents of the Delray Haitian community.
All brought the idea of the konbit -- Creole for a group of people working
together and taking care of others. Virtually everyone in Delray's Haitian
money to someone on the island. The money pays for food, clothes and rent. Very little is used for investment that could build factories or businesses that create jobs
in Haiti. The remittances also keep many Haitians in Florida living paycheck-to-paycheck.
Jean Varnel Fineis, 54, has a wife and seven children in Haiti whom
he supports by working two jobs. He begins his day at 7 a.m. as a self-employed
Broward County and works nights at a local Wal-Mart. He puts in about 71 hours in a typical week, he says.
"Every week I send money to my family," Fineis says. "If I have $200,
I send $200. If I have $100, I send $100. All of my money that I make in
the United States,
90 percent I send to Haiti."
With each trip back to Haiti, Enise Francois -- a Haiti native who runs
a Delray money-transfer shop -- records the names of the sick and the needy
amounts to a catalog of ills. There's the woman she found dying in a sanitarium. A bedroll, some blankets and vitamins for the woman cost Francois about $11.
There's the man in need of liver surgery. Cost: $32. A third person on her list -- so lengthy that it nearly fills a student composition book -- needs cataract surgery
Finding Haitians in need is no problem; she meets them through the network of religious groups and friends she knows on the island.
"The situation there is getting so bad, and it never seems to get any better," she says. "There's no food, no water, no jobs, no hospitals really."
Francois says she spends more than $1,000 a year on the people she helps,
on top of money she sends to her extended family. In Delray, at least a
Haitian businesses offer to wire money, send food and deliver other packages to the island.
"If you could see my bank account you'd think I'm crazy -- there's nothing
there," she says. "But this is what you do when you're Haitian. You support
raised and took care of you on the island."
Studies suggest that Haitian exiles send up to $800 million home every
year -- much of it from Florida. By comparison, the country receives about
$260 million in
international aid annually from private charities and governments such as the United States, Haiti's largest donor.
The huge growth of the Florida Haitian community in recent decades means
that any major upheaval on the island would be impossible for Floridians
Earlier waves of Haitian immigrants often arrived with no family here. That isn't the case now.
Many on the island are supported by minimum-wage workers in places such
as Boca Raton, where Creole is increasingly the patois of supermarket checkout
theater aisles and lunch counters. Bartering is common at local garage sales, where Haitian women are often the first to arrive on Saturday mornings. The city also
now has one of the region's Creole-speaking radio stations.
As a result, Haitians are being courted by both major political parties.
Several have won political office in South Florida and cities around the
country -- including
Florida state Rep. Phillip Brutus, D-Miami, who was elected in 2000, and Joe Celestin, the Haitian-American mayor of North Miami, elected in 2001.
Haitians also are being heard by organizations such as the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has placed more
immigration reform and other issues important to the Haitian-American community.
"Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the Haitian community is supporting
someone back on the island, their own family or maybe two or three families,"
Dejean, of Minority Development & Empowerment in Fort Lauderdale. "If there's another major crisis on the island, it's going to have a much larger impact than it
did a decade ago."
Foreign remittances are so important that the Haitian government has
a department to cultivate contacts, and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
refers to those living
abroad as the "10th Department" -- following Haiti's nine other departments, or provinces.
"I don't think people fully understand how bad things are in Haiti,"
says Dejean. "People may go to Port-au-Prince and they see this bedlam,
this economic activity,
and they think, well, it's poor but there's business here. But if you get outside of the capital, into the small towns and rural areas, there's just nothing. And I mean
absolutely nothing there for people to survive on.
"That's where the real money goes -- keeping these people alive."
Copyright © 2004