This article is the first in a series about the 2022 federal midterm and state elections, supported by the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. The first two stories examine the Haitian-American legislative caucus in the state assembly and how this year’s Haitian-American candidates might affect it, if elected.
NEW YORK — When last year’s Haitian refugee crisis in Del Rio, Texas hit the news in September, several Haitian-American politicians from New York headed south to the border. With clergy and other immigrant advocates, they held press conferences and even met with congressional leaders.
But once the Del Rio underpass was cleared and the headlines stopped, the longer-term needs of the refugees largely went unaddressed, community members said. The lack of a coordinated response left some wondering why Haitian-American elected representatives, including those who informally form the New York State Haitian Legislative Caucus, did not do more to help Haitian refugees coming into the state.
“They’ve been responsive, but I was disappointed when last year’s Del Rio border crisis happened and wished they pulled together as a unit to do more,” said Elsie Saint-Louis, CEO of Haitian-Americans United for Progress (HAUP). “We continue to have conversations, but I feel like everybody forgot these people even came.”
The border response illustrates a disconnect between what community members think the Haitian Legislative Caucus — made up of assembly members Phara Souffrant Forrest, Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn, Mathylde Frontus, Clyde Vanel, Kimberly Jean-Pierre and Michaelle Solages — should do versus what those representatives are actually equipped to do. Experts said in the case of the informally-designated Haitian caucus, more Haitian-Americans would need to be in office for the group to be formalized. Only then would it stand a better chance of affecting policy that affects Haitian communities across the state.
“Their presence has already made a big difference because 30 years ago, Haitians had no representation,” said François Pierre-Louis, assistant professor of political science at Queens College of CUNY. “It’s amazing and pleasant to have so many Haitians in the state assembly and the city council within such a short period of time.”
However, Pierre-Louis said, while the Haitian-American community is making headway in the state’s political spheres, their numbers in the legislature are not yet sufficient to yield policy changes that favor Haitians specifically.
With the June 28 Democratic primary approaching and all assembly members gearing up to maintain their seats, thoughts of what the Haitian-American representatives have achieved are top of mind for some voters. Many community members say they wish the cohort would do more as a collective to help the state’s Haitian communities.
In particular, the community members would like to see the representatives become a formal caucus in order to enact more direct policy change for Haitians within their communities.
“Anything we can do together to be stronger and impact decisions that are going to ricochet to Haiti is important,” Saint-Louis said. “Individually, they’re amazing. But I just want them to be amazing together.”
Caucus in name only, with underwhelming results
Official caucuses are able to enact specific legislation targeting residents, including tax credits for small businesses. Solages of District 22 currently chairs the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, which released a manifesto last month on their plans to address inequality within the state.
The Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus has 45 members, while the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force has 46 members. In contrast, the six members of the informally-designated Haitian Legislative Caucus make up 4% of the 150-member assembly.
As an informal group, the Haitian Legislative Caucus does not receive funding from the state like other caucuses do. Nor is it listed on the assembly’s site under caucuses and task forces.
Vanel, of District 33 in Southeast Queens, said the Haitian caucus formed around 2012, when Solages won the state assembly seat for District 22.
“We’ve been working together for a long time,” Vanel said. “It’s important for us to get resources and information for our population because we all represent different areas of the state.”
Over the years, the members have helped pass resolutions to commemorate the Haiti 2010 Earthquake Commemoration and Haiti Independence Day. Earlier this month, Assembly Resolution No. 832, led by Bichotte-Hermelyn of District 42, went to Governor Kathy Hochul to officially designate May as Haitian Heritage Month in the state. The assembly adopted the resolution and it will now go on to be reviewed by the state senate and the governor’s office.
All six assembly members also work to address issues deeply impacting Haitian-Americans, including the language barrier, immigration resources and homeownership assistance, said Vanel, the only member who agreed to be interviewed for this article.
He and his Haitian colleagues also work closely underneath the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force, but do not have any plans to become a formal Haitian caucus within the assembly.
Community clamor for better support, policy change
Nevertheless, Haitian-American residents said they would feel more supported if the six assembly members were to form their own caucus.
In the Del Rio refugees case, some point out, the assembly members lacked focus and only paid lip service.
“There were press releases galore about their take on issues, including Del Rio, but in the bigger scheme of things, I would say a flat-out ‘no’ when it comes to if they are effective or not,” said Ronald Aubourg, an immigration reform activist in Brooklyn.
“In terms of advocating for fair and just policies to help out immigrants and impact bigger policy issues, I haven’t seen that,” Aubourg said.
In Queens, Vanel helped establish an immigration clinic at HAUP last year to help the Del Rio refugees obtain legal representation, with funding through assembly member Helene Weinstein of District 44. Saint-Louis said she wants to see more concrete measures set in the budget to maintain these services.
“I would love to see them become a formal caucus and really take on a big Haitian initiative,” Saint-Louis said. “When there’s an opportunity for them to step up, educate and do more, I really wish I saw more of that going on to empower the community.”
Even if the six were to become a caucus, other residents said, the assembly members would have to develop firm steps to help Haitian-Americans specifically.
“They need to pay attention to the real needs of the community,” said Vidho Lorville, a local artist. “It needs to be a concerted effort where they have an action plan and reach out to the community organizers and ministers to find out what people are going through.”
Read the next installment where we have a look at how the potential current candidates, if successful, could increase Haitian-American representation in the New York State legislature and make a formal caucus more feasible. Then, in the fall, look for stories in the series on language accessibility in Brooklyn voting districts and housing assistance in New York’s Haitian-American community.