Newest wave of emigres struggles for firm toehold in US

The neatly painted lettering over the door of a small corner store here reads ''Little Haiti Auto Parts.'' It tells part of the story of one of the nation's newest groups of illegal immigrants: Haitians, many of whom face possible deportation.

Most brought little or nothing with them when they fled the poverty and oppression of their little Caribbean nation, one of the world's poorest. But as poor as they are, in more than half the Haitian households here someone owns a car.

Across the street, three Haitian women stop to talk to a Haitian man. For a moment, the rich sounds of their native French Creole, punctuated with occasional laughter, float over the noise of street traffic.

In a nearby adult-education classroom, an English teacher leads eight eager Haitians in an exercise using similar-sounding words: ''red, wed; ring, wing.''

Although most Haitians in the Miami area have been in the United States only a few years, more than half of them speak good English, according to a study report.

Not far from the auto-parts store, Haitian immigrant Edith Prophete sits in a tiny, dilapidated, two-room apartment with her two children and wonders what will happen to her. She says she is three months behind in her rent. And, like more than half the Haitian adults here, she is jobless.

Many of the Haitians in Miami are desperately poor. A 1982 study, the latest available, showed that two-thirds of the Haitian households here had an income of less than $150 a week. In Haiti, per capita income is only about $300 a year. But expenses are much higher here.

There are several hundred thousand Haitians residing in the United States, most of whom have come since the 1950s. In 1980, encouraged by American acceptance of some 125,000 Cuban refugees arriving in a mass exodus, more than 15,000 Haitian immigrants entered the US. Most of them arrived illegally - penniless and exhausted after dangerous crossings in overcrowded boats. Food and water supplies often ran short or ran out during the trip.

But many brought with them a willingness to work hard, an eagerness to master English, and a reluctance to rely on government assistance.

''They don't have the 9-to-5 concept,'' says Haitian community leader Roger Biamby. They gladly work longer hours if given the chance, he adds.

And they don't like dependence on welfare, says Mr. Biamby, executive director of the Haitian American Community Association for Dade County, which includes Miami.

The 1982 study by the Behavioral Science Research Institute found that despite unemployment rates four times higher than the rest of Dade County (greater Miami) residents - and twice as high as for blacks - Haitians showed no greater dependence on welfare, social security, or other aid than the community at large.

By their hard work, ''they're adapting'' to American life, says the Rev. Thomas Wenski, director of the Haitian Catholic Center here. ''Generally, the Haitians have reputations as good workers,'' he says.

Haitians have opened some 200 businesses in this area. In some cases their legitimate businesses have displaced adult bookstores and pornographic theaters, says Father Wenski.

Estimates of the number of Haitians here vary from a government figure of 30, 000 in south Florida to as many as 50,000 for Miami alone.

Although Miami does not have the largest number of Haitians in the US, it has the greatest concentration in one place. A section of small businesses, two-story apartments, and modest-to-small homes - many in bad condition - has become known as ''Little Haiti.''

Many Haitians in other US cities have become legal residents. Most here remain ''illegals,'' ineligible for permanent residence unless Congress authorizes it.

Now the Immigration and Naturalization Service has begun taking back work permits from many of the Haitians.

Federal benefits such as unemployment compensation are being cut off for many illegal aliens, not just Haitians. This action is part of a national effort to discourage illegal immigration and to make it harder for those already here to stay, INS spokesman Vern Jarvis says.

''I don't think the public wants the benefits dispensed to anyone who (illegally) gets to the states,'' says Mr. Jarvis. ''Is there room for all of them (illegal aliens who want to come to the US from any country) in the US?'' he asks.

But Haitians are not likely to go home because of the cutoff of work permits or benefits, says Biamby, a Haitian himself. ''They will just tighten their belts.''

Many are fearful about how the Haitian government would treat them if they went back, according to Biamby and others here who work with the immigrants. Also, they like the greater political freedom they have here, despite their legal limbo, Biamby says.

Haitian immigrant Darious Merius, interviewed in Homestead, a south Florida agricultural community, explained why he wants to stay: ''Even if it (life here) is hard, it can help me to send at least some money back to my family in Haiti.''

He says he has worked in a laundromat and as a migrant farm worker since coming to the US. At the moment, however, he is without work.

Most Haitians here have families back home, and many send money back there, thus helping the economy of Haiti.

Jacqueline Martelly, a Haitian with legal status in this country, helps transport Haitians to Roman Catholic church services in Homestead which are conducted by Haitian priests. Sitting at the back of the church during a recent service, she said she could see signs of the immigrants' progress.

''Two years ago they came here (to the services) without shoes, with torn pants and light shirts and no sweaters in winter,'' she recalled. On this warm evening most wore dress slacks and shirts, and shoes.

Although they are still very poor, most of the newly arrived Haitians help one another, she says. On the other hand, she added, many longtime, legal Haitian residents are ''ashamed'' to associate with the newcomers.

Nest: How illegal status complicates life for Haitians -- and the US Immigration Service.

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