vice presidential debate

For Haitians in New York and Florida, the reality of climate change has also begun to sink in.

By Sam Bojarski

Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence. (Courtesy of Associated Press)

Wednesday evening’s vice presidential debate focused largely on the coronavirus pandemic, which had a devastating impact on Haitian-Americans, from New York to Florida. 

Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris took advantage of her first opportunity to speak by criticizing the Trump administration for its handling of the pandemic. Coronavirus remained a common thread, as both Harris and Vice President Mike Pence drew connections between the pandemic and other issues like the economy and healthcare.

“We’re looking at frontline workers who have been treated like sacrificial workers,” said Harris, who also noted how slow the Trump administration was in responding. “On January 28th, the vice president and the president were informed about the nature of this pandemic.”

COVID-19 and health care

Harris also said the current administration lacks a plan to fight coronavirus and highlighted Biden’s reopening plan that calls for a national contact tracing force. Pence countered by calling out the swift decision to suspend travel from China in January and the effort to develop a vaccine through Operation Warp Speed.

In New York and Miami, where thousands of Haitian-Americans work in frontline roles in health care, restaurants and hotels, many did not have the luxury to work remotely or miss work for an extended period. 

“We were walking around with the virus in our system,” said Dr. Cassandra Arnold, referring to the weeks leading up to the economic shutdown in March. “A lot of death could have been prevented.” 

Arnold, a Miami resident and president of the Democratic Haitian American Caucus of Florida, recalled traveling to New York City for a conference in February. The pandemic at the time was an afterthought she said, which reflected a failure to prepare.

“The Haitian community and the immigrant community are always on the front line,” said Shirley Paul, an attorney who lives in Brooklyn. “We need an administration that’s going to take a health crisis on this magnitude seriously … that’s going to respond with resources and not play politics with states that are hurting.” 

Disparities in health care access have illuminated the need to protect the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which Paul called “more important than ever.” 

Both Harris and Biden have made defending the ACA a hallmark of their health care policy. The Trump administration has tried to get rid of the ACA, or Obamacare, but has not proposed an alternative. 

“Obamacare was a disaster, and the American people remember it well. And President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and protect [coverage for] preexisting conditions for every American,” Pence said during the debate. 

Climate change, the economy and race

Canarsie, one of Brooklyn’s major Haitian enclaves, will likely need federal resources to combat the impacts of climate change ‒ an issue the vice presidential candidates debated. 

Due to its position on relatively high terrain, Haitian activists say Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood is becoming a victim of climate gentrification as more affluent people move there from lower-lying, beachfront areas in South Florida. 

During the debate, Pence touted the free-market as the best bet for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, casting the Green New Deal as a regulatory burden. Harris noted that a Biden administration would create jobs in fields like renewable energy. 

Canarsie and surrounding south Brooklyn neighborhoods, Paul said, still have not fully recovered from the impact of Superstorm Sandy.

“The next passing storm can wipe us out,” said Paul. “We care about getting our coastline shored up and getting that support from the federal government.” 

A portrait of California Sen. Kamala Harris. (Public domain image)

When the economy came up in the debate, both candidates emphasized their significant differences. Harris said the battered economy is a result of Trump’s poor handling of the coronavirus crisis. She noted the Biden administration’s commitment to investing in infrastructure, renewable energy and even free public college. 

Pence promised four more years of low taxes and job growth. 

Later in the debate, when the issue of racial justice came up, Pence also touted the ability of the Trump administration to improve the economic standing of African-Americans. 

“We’ll always stand with law enforcement, and we’ll do what we’ve done from day one, which is improve the lives of African-Americans,” Pence said. 

Trump has claimed that he helped give African-Americans the best economy in U.S. history, in terms of unemployment, without showing proof of his claim.

“That really baffles me,” Arnold said. “I continue to hear that narrative in our community, as if they came into an economy that was in a recession.”

The Associated Press has reported that Black unemployment did drop to a record low in August 2019. However, much of the progress was made during the Obama administration, when the unemployment rate among Blacks fell from 16.8% in March 2010, to 7.8% in January 2017. Other factors, like the racial wealth gap, were worsening before the pandemic

For immigrant communities in particular, small business closures and job loss since the pandemic means the opportunity to build intergenerational wealth is on the line, Paul said. 

“We want to see that opportunity for other immigrants and other generations,” Paul said. “To me, Biden and Kamala have respect for the office. [They] understand the struggle for the day-to-day American, and they also care about it.”

Historic nomination

Harris, whose father and mother were immigrants from Jamaica and India, respectively, called attention to her immigrant roots when she noted how proud her mother would have been to see her as the vice-presidential nominee. 

Even Pence congratulated Harris on the “historic nature” of her nomination. However, immigration policy did not play an important role in the debate. 

Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA TODAY, moderated the Oct. 7 debate in Salt Lake City Utah

Two more presidential debates will occur later this month: a town hall-style event on Oct. 15 in Miami, followed by an Oct. 22 debate in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America corps member. 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 or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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