Gillesandres Noel had just arrived in Puerto Rico from Haiti. It was 2013, and his brother Greg expected it would be a just matter of heartbeats until he would be reunited with his older sibling.
But after a short stint on American soil, the older Noel was returned to that island-nation then – as it is still – recovering from the effects of the 2010 earthquake. Greg Noel, now a sophomore at Broward College, has yet to see him again.
A six-year policy relaxing immigration and deportation policies for Haitians in response to the temblor expired earlier this year. With devastation again visited on the country earlier this month in the form of Hurricane Matthew, South Florida Haitians are calling on the Obama administration to show compassion for the country’s plight and allow more refugees to come and stay here.
Others go further, saying South Florida’s second-largest immigrant group should be given the same ease of attaining residency and citizenship as the largest: Cubans.
Ketley Joachim, a North Miami Beach resident, was born in Haiti but raised here.
“The Haitian community has always been excluded,” Joachim said. “It’s hurtful right now because we’re at the end of the first black president’s term, and with Haiti being the first black republic, we thought that Obama would understand. But he didn’t.”
Joachim also said that Haitians come to America to either get an education or to send money to their families back home.
“We [Haitians] don’t ask for handouts,” she said. “You won’t find a Haitian that comes here to sit on their butt. You have a responsibility to your family in Haiti, and if you don’t work, they don’t eat.”
Gillesandres Noel, now 35, worked as a paralegal in Haiti. He worked to take care of his son and girlfriend and to put his younger sister through nursing school, said his brother. But Haiti, still reeling from the 2010 earthquake, was a less than ideal place to live.
The older Noel asked his father for money, said Greg Noel, who gave him $3,000, a huge sum of money to them.
His brother wanted to start a new life and to send for his girlfriend and son. But the brief trip to Puerto Rico and the resulting deportation drained all those funds, and he had to start over.
Many Haitians do find their way to the U.S. and South Florida, of course, though the route is hard. Ronald Williams, 42, arrived in Gainesville in May 2014 with just a gym bag full of clothes.
Williams, who cobbles together a living working with crops, said though he received a temporary visa, becoming a permanent legal resident has been a struggle. He had not been able to get a work permit or get a Social Security card until a few months ago.
Williams works in a plant field in Homestead, beginning the day at 5:30 am and not ending until at least 4:30 pm, and sometimes 6:30 pm, depending on the weather. He said he makes about $400 every two weeks, in part due to federal rules that exempt agricultural workers from many overtime and minimum wage protections.
“I continue to work in the rain, in the hot sun, and the cold every time, though it aches my body because I want to be here as a resident,” said Williams in Creole. “I make very little money and have to pay rent, buy food, send money to my family, pay a translator to help me out, and try to treat myself every once in awhile.”
Williams said he received a work permit and Social Security Number in August. He said he wants to learn English, get a driver’s license and find a new job.
“Sometimes I wish we had the same chances like Cubans so I wouldn’t have to go through a long process to become a resident, and I hope the US starts to see the devastation in Haiti,” he said. “We are hard-working people like everyone else and we need immediate help in America and Haiti.”
After the 2010 earthquake, the US government gave Haitians Temporary Protected Status, meaning undocumented immigrants were generally not deported and most were eligible to receive work permits. The designation expired on Jan. 22 of this year, only a few months before Hurricane Matthew killed hundreds, displaced thousands and placed the economy of Haiti, literally, underwater.
For some, it all seems hopeless. Jessica Victor, a North Miami resident, said Haitians are generally neglected and believes little will change
“I don’t think it will improve because look at the country after the last earthquake,” Victor said. “If [the U.S.] didn’t help out last time, they won’t now.”
Others are proactive. Marleine Bastien, the executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, said the community needs to fight for change.
Bastien said she is looking for 100,000 signatures for a petition that will urge Obama to allow more Haitian refugees to stay in America, given the political and social unrest in the aftermath of the hurricane.
“They always find a way to shut us down,” she said, referring to state and federal officials. “Residents need to fight for Haiti’s respect, and this is the time to push.