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Elected officials to promote Haitian aid

Kenneth J. Cooper | 11/4/2009, 4:27 a.m.

Elected officials of Haitian descent have joined together to form a national network to support federal initiatives to assist the impoverished Caribbean nation.

The National Haitian American Elected Officials Network held its inaugural meeting last week in Washington, D.C., convened by state Rep. Marie St. Fleur and facilitated by the Trotter Institute at UMass Boston. Attending were 16 of the 22 Haitian Americans who are known to serve as state legislators, city council members, deputy mayors or mayors in Florida, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

“It was exciting to be in the position to convene this first meeting,” said St. Fleur, the senior state official in the group. “What was motivating for me was collectively we were able to move out of there with a common purpose.”

In its mission statement, the Haitian American political network set as priorities the promotion of federal legislation and policies on foreign aid, immigration and investment that would benefit Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

The nonpartisan organization, which uses the acronym NHAEON, has initial challenges in developing working relationships with members of Congress who can impact Haiti-related bills and in balancing roles as American officials and advocates for another country.

The inaugural meeting, in the works since April, marked the first time that Haitian American officials across the country have been identified. “It was really good to meet the group,” St. Fleur said.

Besides St. Fleur and state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, who attended the meeting, Haitian American officeholders include Kwame Raoul, who holds President Obama’s former seat in the Illinois senate; Mathieu Eugene, the first Haiti-born member of the New York City Council, representing Brooklyn; and state Rep. Jean Leniol Jeudy from Manchester, N.H.

Nearly half of the elected officials, 10 of 22, are from Florida, which has the largest population of Haitian Americans, followed by New York-New Jersey and then Massachusetts. Florida has three Haitian American legislators: representatives Yolly Roberson of the Miami-Dade County, Ronald Brise of North Miami and Mackenson Bernard of Tallahassee. Andre Pierre, also from North Miami, is the only mayor of Haitian descent.

Speakers at the inaugural meeting included Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador to Washington; and Patrick Gaspard, a Haitian-American who directs the White House Office of Political Affairs.

Six Democratic members of Congress participated to show their support: Barney Frank and Michael Capuano of Massachusetts; Alcee Hastings and Kendrick Meek of Florida; Jan Schakowsky of Illinois; and John Conyers of Michigan, the senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Trotter Institute director Barbara Lewis and associate director Alix Cantave, a Haitian-American, facilitated the meeting and attended the sessions Oct. 29 and 30 in the visitor center and an office building in the US Capitol complex.

The new network urged Obama and Congress to adopt immigration reform that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented Haitians; and grant temporary asylum to an estimated 30,000 Haitians facing deportation from the United States.

The founding members also called for U.S. aid to Haiti to be “allocated and monitored more effectively” in order to address the country’s root problems of building the government’s capacity to deliver such basic services as education and public safety.

The network will attempt to hold both governments accountable for making the foreign aid more effective, St. Fleur said.

Last month, Obama gave Haiti a boost by certifying its government had met conditions for continuing the trade preferences that Congress approved last year.

That legislation, known as HOPE II or Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement II, extended duty-free access to the US market for clothing, Haiti’s primary export. The country gained an advantage over Asian countries that produce knit clothes but must pay a duty to export them to this country.

Obama certified that Haiti President Rene Preval has appointed an independent labor ombudsman and established a program to reach international labor standards, including the right to collective bargaining, effective bans on child labor and coerced labor, and nondiscrimination in the workplace.