By Sam Bojarski

Kamala Harris may have spent much of her formative years with her Indian-American mother.

Kamala Harris (center) poses with Jamaican leaders in Miami. (Courtesy of Commissioner Winston Barnes)

Yet, her roots to the Caribbean run deep — both personally and through policy positions that affect immigrants from the region.

The Democratic vice presidential nominee’s father, who is a Jamaica native, exposed Harris and her younger sister to Caribbean life and culture when the girls were very young, according to published reports. Harris’s recent political record as a California Senator and presidential candidate shows strong support for issues that impact Caribbean Americans, such as immigration reform. 

Carline Desire, of the Association of Haitian Women

“The possibility of her making a connection with a wider range of the population is high,” said Haitian American Carline Desire, executive director of the Boston-based Association of Haitian Women. “We are thrilled she is part of the ticket and thrilled she has selected Karine [Jean-Pierre] as chief of staff.”

Harris’s selection of Jean-Pierre and her legislative record of support for such causes as TPS for Haitians, family reunification and increased Census funding are among the reasons experts say Harris is likely to be friendly to causes that deeply impact Haitians.

“Haitian Americans are in a better position to have Biden and Kamala listen to them than [with] previous governments,” said François Pierre-Louis, a professor of political science at Queens College. “But all of this also means it all depends on what the Haitian diaspora is doing, how well it is organized.”

Harris’s Caribbean Roots

Harris is the first Black woman, first Indian-American woman and first Caribbean American to appear on a major-party presidential ticket. On the Caribbean side, the Harris name comes down through her father Donald Harris and his paternal grandfather Joseph Alexander Harris, a landowner and produce exporter, according to Donald Harris’s published works. 

Retired Stanford economics professor Donald Harris. (Courtesy of Jamaica Observer/YouTube)

Donald Harris, a retired economics professor, grew up influenced by the politics of his maternal grandmother, a proud supporter of the Jamaica Labour Party. Another grandparent ran a sugarcane farm, Donald wrote in a 2019 essay, and it was this early exposure to the sugar industry that sparked his interest in economics. 

After completing undergraduate studies at the University of the West Indies, Harris immigrated to America in 1961 to pursue graduate study, eventually earning a PhD in economics at the University of California-Berkeley. Donald Harris met Shyamala Gopalan at Berkeley. They divorced in 1973, when Kamala Harris was seven years old. 

During her childhood, Donald Harris said he took his daughters on multiple trips to Jamaica.

“In Brown’s Town, [Jamaica], we walked the streets during ‘market day’, chatted up the ‘higglers’ in the market and were rewarded with plenty of ‘brawta,’” Donald Harris wrote in an essay. 

A market in Brown’s Town, Jamaica (Photo by Wikimedia Commons user jbjelloid)

It is unclear what the father-daughter relationship is like now. But while his daughter was running for president in early 2019, Donald Harris criticized her for a joking comment she made connecting her Jamaican identity to marijuana. 

Caribbean American Interests

Perhaps more important than Senator Harris’s Caribbean identity is her commitment to advancing political priorities that benefit Caribbean Americans, observers say. 

Political science professor Francois Pierre-Louis. (Courtesy of Queens College)

Harris’s appearance on the Biden ticket is “a great step” that represents the lofty goals that immigrants and their children can achieve in the U.S., Pierre-Louis said. He cautioned, however, against excessive enthusiasm.

“Having Caribbean roots doesn’t mean she’s going to defend the interests of the Caribbean,” Pierre-Louis said. “She’s going to defend the interests of the United States, which, many times, may be in contradiction or conflict with the interests of the Caribbean.”

Following is Harris’s stance on the major issues affecting Haitians.

Harris on Immigration & TPS

Pointing to immigration policy, Pierre-Louis said a Biden-Harris policy on immigration might be more sensible toward Caribbeans and other immigrants compared to Donald Trump’s stance. But, that doesn’t mean that the fundamental nature of U.S. immigration policy will change. 

On multiple occasions, Harris has supported Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which impacts about 50,000 Haitians in the U.S. In 2019, she joined other senators in demanding the Trump administration extend TPS to Syrians and co-sponsored a bill to grant TPS to Bahamians. 

Harris told USA Today that she favors restoring protections for TPS beneficiaries. She’d like to see a path to citizenship for Dreamers and the refugee cap restored. 

As a presidential candidate, Harris also announced a plan to remove the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented people in the U.S. 

In early 2018, Harris quickly condemned the infamous “shithole countries” comment Trump made during immigration discussions. Later that year, Harris publicly called for the then-head of Homeland Security to resign, over family separations and pregnant detainees. 

Harris on Criminal Justice and Police Reforms

During the primaries, left-leaning progressives were particularly skeptical of Harris’s past as a prosecutor. 

The criminal justice reform plan she released in September 2019, as a presidential candidate, included ways to abolish mandatory minimum sentences, private prisons and the death penalty, although as California Attorney General, Harris appealed a ruling that found the death penalty unconstitutional.

As a senator, Harris worked across the aisle on a bill to reform America’s bail system and also supported the FIRST STEP Act, designed in part to reduce the federal prison population.

Since George Floyd’s death, Harris has pushed for reforms, including independent investigations into police misconduct and a national standard for when law enforcement can use force. 

Along with Senator Cory Booker, she drafted legislation in June 2020 to ban chokeholds, limit qualified immunity for police officers and create a national misconduct registry. 

Harris on Census Counts

Harris has also been vocal in denouncing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids. In August of 2019, she said ICE raids were part of Trump’s “campaign of terror.” She also voiced concern then that immigration enforcement actions would distort the 2020 census.

This past October, Harris issued a proclamation urging residents of California to participate in the 2020 Census. She said then, “Our democracy depends on having a full and accurate Census count every 10 years.”

In 2018, Harris publicly criticized the Trump administration for proposing to add a question about citizenship.   

As immigrant communities faced the double onslaught of enforcement crackdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, Harris introduced a bill this June designed to help ensure an accurate Census count. 

The proposed bill includes extending the statutory deadlines for submitting redistricting and apportionment data through 2021 and earmarks $400 million to address the impact of coronavirus on the 2020 Census.

Harris on Haiti & Haitian Americans

This past fall, Harris was not particularly vocal as protesters in Haiti denounced their government’s corruption and an unsustainable economy. 

Karine Jean-Pierre, Kamala Harris’s chief of staff. (Courtesy of University of Chicago)

Still, Pierre-Louis said, a Biden-Harris administration hearkens back to former President Barack Obama’s policy of pushing for fair elections in Haiti and ensuring greater accountability on the part of the Haitian government.

And with Jean-Pierre onboard, Haitian Americans could be in a good position to have their voices heard, according to Pierre-Louis. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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