Long Isolated, Haitians in the US May Enter Local, National Politics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Haitian crisis may have one unexpected domestic result: Some Haitian Americans now want to get involved in United States politics.

This would be a major shift for one of the newest US groups. Some Haitians have become citizens, but they rarely run for political office, nor do they have the influence of Cuban Americans.

There are 1.2 million Haitians living in this country, but there are no members of Congress of Haitian background. In the tri-state New York metropolitan area, there are an estimated 500,000 Haitians, but there are no elected Haitian-American state or city officials. The same is true in Florida, where there is a large immigrant population.

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``This community is a virgin community, politically speaking,'' says Dr. Henry Frank, executive director of the Haitian Centers Council in Brooklyn.

That may be changing, however. After an anti-invasion protest outside the United Nations on Sunday, a group of immigrants held what may have been a watershed meeting.

``The general consensus was that we must be part of the system here as well,'' says Fritz Monfleury, one of the demonstrators. In addition, both pro- and anti-invasion advocates spent hours on phones trying to influence Congress.

Haitians give various reasons why the new immigrant group has yet to make its mark in American politics. Leo Joseph, co-publisher of the Haitian Observateur, a Haitian newspaper, says Haitians are afraid to commit themselves too strongly to US. ``Deep down they think they are here for just a little while to sit out the bad times; that when things get better politically or economically, they will go back home,'' he explains.

This lack of involvement is reflected in the relatively slow rate at which Haitians have become US citizens, says Alex Dupuy, a Haitian professor of sociology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. ``Haitians are not opting to become US citizens as quickly as other immigrants.''

Mr. Monfleury says his father and grandmother have never bothered with US citizenship. ``When I became a citizen, my dad was very upset - he wanted to know why I would do that,'' says Monfleury, who also served in the US Marine Corps.

Another reason for the lack of political involvement is the language problem. Many Haitians arrive here without learning English. This puts them at a disadvantage compared to English-speaking Caribbean groups. And, Dr. Frank says, the Haitian community has tended to remain insular. ``Many are very introverted,'' he says, ``and have a very small circle [even] within the Haitian community.''

A city politician in the West Indian community notes that the Haitians also do not take part in the traditional Labor-Day Caribbean parades.

This political shyness, says Frank, is now hurting the Haitian-Americans. ``We are a community that is underfunded and underserved,'' he states. He believes this is reflected in the city's bilingual school programs that he calls ``not well put together.'' And he thinks that the politicians who represent Haitians respond to the community mainly to win votes.

Mr. Joseph says US Rep. Major Owens (D) of Brooklyn, N.Y., courts the Haitian community mainly when he is raising funds. Mr. Owens, through his Washington office, did not return calls seeking comment.

In large part because of political frustration, second- and third-generation Haitian Americans are starting to see a reason to become involved.

``If there were Haitians in Congress or any elected position, I am sure there would be more concern - this (crisis) took three years to be resolved and three years of an embargo,'' says Monfleury.

The catalyst for Monfleury was a trip this August to Washington to lobby against an invasion. He and some other Haitian Americans had planned to meet with a staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Monfleury believes lobbyist Michael Barnes, representing exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, heard about the visit and convinced the staff member to cancel the meeting. ``I was running like crazy trying to figure out what happened,'' says Monfleury.

What happened, according to a congressional aide, is that the staff member heard it was going to be a large group and cancelled the meeting, which was eventually rescheduled. This brush with politics has helped whet Monfleury's appetite for further involvement. He plans to form a political club. ``My task is to register as many Haitians as I can and encourage them to become citizens.''

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