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Desiline Victor after she arrived in DC
Desiline Victor, after her arrival in Washington, D.C., to attend the State of the Union
She could be my grandmother.

Just getting a chance to see President Obama honor 102-year-old Desiline Victor at his State of the Union address put a smile on my face. What is disheartening is that Fox News and other right-wingers have gone swimming in sludge—again. In their efforts to disparage the president, they took aim at a woman of whom we all should be proud.  

Kudos to Michelle Obama and the POTUS for inviting her and sharing her story with us.

On Wednesday, Ms. Victor returned to Florida to a heroes welcome—covered by WSVN-TV—and was awarded a proclamation by Miami-Dade County, naming February the 13th "Desiline Victor Day."

For many viewers like me, she is symbolic of the grit and determination exhibited by citizens in pursuit of exercising their right to cast a ballot, in the face of obstacles that are being raised across the United States to disenfranchise the poor, the elderly, immigrants and people of color.

She also symbolizes immigrants to this country who represent what the United States is supposed to be about.

If my own grandmothers were alive today they would both suggest that the faux patriots on the right get their mouths washed out with soap.  

Where are their so-called "family values" when they diss our elders?  

When they spout their pseudo-patriotism, let us remind them that each one of them is descended from immigrants.

Join me in honoring Ms. Victor, the groups working to protect the vote and assisting new citizens, and in discovering more about Caribbean immigrants to our shores—past and present— below the fold.

Though wingnuts are in a snit over the fact that Ms. Victor, or "Granny" as she is lovingly called by neighbors, speaks Kreyòl, and have mistakenly attacked her directly as "ineligible" for citizenship, by citing their faulty knowledge of qualifications for citizenship, it is important to correct them (the 55/15 exemption), but more important that we highlight and support the work being done by organizations across the U.S. who are guiding and assisting the path to full citizenship, and protecting voting rights.

Groups like the Advancement Project, who brought Ms. Victor to the attention of Michelle Obama, could use our support.  

Advancement Project is a next generation, multi-racial civil rights organization. Rooted in the great human rights struggles for equality and justice, we exist to fulfill America's promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy. We use innovative tools and strategies to strengthen social movements and achieve high impact policy change.
One of the projects they take on within the context of voting rights is immigrant voter education.  
Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project, a civil rights group that met Victor while doing voter protection advocacy work, and brought her to Washington this week, pointed out that tens of thousands of other Americans did not get to vote, after facing similar problems at the polls. “Citizens who take responsibility to carry out their civic duty are still not guaranteed their right to vote in this country,” said Browne Dianis. “And while Ms. Victor’s determination to make her voice heard was heroic, she should never have had to wait in line for more than three hours to do it. These problems could be fixed with federal voting standards, including early voting and modernized registration, to ensure that elections are free, fair and accessible. Currently we have 123,000 different jurisdictions who run elections 13,000 different ways”

 Gihan Perera, executive director of Florida New Majority, a statewide civil rights organization that recently released policy recommendations for election reform to the Florida legislature, said, “Ms. Victor represents the kind of heroines and heroes that we had in Florida, who, despite the legislative obstacles put in their way, came out in droves and exercised their human and constitutional right to vote. What needs to be done now is to honor those efforts by restoring the public confidence in our voting system and ensuring that democracy works for all.”

As part of my series for Black History month, I'd like to also explore Caribbean immigration to the U.S., which Ms. Victor, as a person born in Haiti, represents.

Caribbean migration to the U.S. and states like Florida is not new. One of my favorite places to visit in New York is Ellis Island, to the immigration museum, and whenever I have guests from out of state I take them there.  

When we think of Ellis Island, we tend to think of those who came into this country past the Statue of Liberty as emigres from Europe. As researchers from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library point out:

The number of black people, especially those from the Caribbean, who migrated to the United States increased dramatically during the first three decades of the twentieth century, peaking in 1924 at 12,250 per year and falling off during the Depression. The foreign-born black population increased from 20,000 in 1900 to almost 100,000 by 1930. Over 140,000 black immigrants passed through United States ports between 1899 and 1937, despite the restrictive immigration laws enacted in 1917, 1921, and 1924.

The wave of black humanity entering the United States was focused on the northeastern coast and broke mainly on the shores of Manhattan. Tens of thousands came through Ellis Island, though the voluminous literature on that legendary port of disembarkation takes scant notice of this fact. From the end of the nineteenth century up to 1905, South Florida was the migrants' primary destination. There was a large wave of migration from the Bahamas and a smaller flow of black cigar-makers from Cuba. New York was the second most popular state for settlement, followed closely by Massachusetts.

But Florida's preeminence was soon surmounted by that of New York, and the number headed for Massachusetts dropped sharply by 1920. During the peak years of migration, 1913 to 1924, the majority made their way to New York City, settling primarily in Manhattan and Brooklyn. By 1930, almost a quarter of black Harlem was of Caribbean origin. Less than a decade later, the New York Amsterdam News informed its readers that, with the exception of Kingston, Jamaica, Harlem was the largest West Indian city in the world.

As an avid genealogist and family researcher, I've had the opportunity to look at thousands of entry and census records. Many of the same people who sneer at Desiline Victor for speaking Kreyòl are direct recent descendents of people who came here speaking no English, and who were unlettered. Many younger immigrants had parents who came here who never did learn. I've lived in many of those neighborhoods, which are rich in the cultures of Europe. However, they are "white" and not facing the brunt of a right-wing attack.

Here is an historical fact that they should be apprised of.

The first cohort of 20th-century Caribbean immigrants to the United States was not only more literate and skilled than their compatriots left behind, but also more educated and skilled than the European immigrants who entered the country at the same time. Moreover, they were more literate than the native-born white population in the United States.

It was this wave that laid the groundwork for the institutional infrastructure of Afro-Caribbean life in New York City and elsewhere in the nation. It has been estimated that by the 1930s a third of New York's black professionals including doctors, dentists, and lawyers;came from the ranks of Caribbean migrants, a figure well in excess of the group's share of the city's black population. Furthermore, the Caribbean newcomers accounted for a disproportionately large number of New York's black businesspeople.

Among the sons and daughters of this generation of Caribbean migrants is a phalanx of distinguished African Americans: activists and religious leaders Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan; actors Harry Belafonte and Cicely Tyson; General Colin Powell; writers Margaret Walker, Audre Lorde, Michelle Wallace, Paule Marshall, Rosa Guy, and June Jordan; scholar St. Clair Drake; Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; and musician Sonny Rollins.

2010 data estimates for West Indian/Caribbean Americans:
Top 5 states by West Indian population
1. New York: 801,041
2. Florida: 772,819
3. New Jersey: 148,654
4. Massachusetts: 112,595
5. Georgia: 110,279

Top 5 MSA/CSAs for West Indians
1. New York CSA: 941,159
2. Miami MSA: 503,656
3. Boston CSA: 111,102
4. Atlanta CSA: 96,657
5. Orlando CSA: 91,937

By Nationality
Bahamian American: 46,907
Barbadian American: 57,491
Belizean American: 52,049
Bermudan American: 6,250
British West Indian: 91,007
Dutch West Indian: 63,652
Haitian American: 846,032
Jamaican American: 961,929
Trinidad and Tobagoan: 194,759
US Virgin Islander: 15,140
Other West Indian (unspecified): 248,108

Image ID:     1206544 Title:     [Three women from Guadeloupe.] Source:     Photographs of immigrants Name:     Sherman, Augustus Francis (1865-1925) - Photographer Name:     Williams, William (1862-1947) - Collector Location:     Manuscripts and Archives Division, Humanities and Social Sciences Library Subjects:     Blacks -- Caribbean Area     Ellis Island Immigration Station (N.Y. and N.J.)     Guadeloupians     Immigrants -- United States     Women -- Clothing and dress -- Guadeloupe
Three women from Guadeloupe,
at Ellis Island
The history of middle class immigrants does not mean to imply that all have been middle class or educated. Where I live in the Hudson Valley region of New York, many of our local citizens of West Indian heritage came here originally as farmworkers—mainly from Jamaica and Barbados. They settled, became citizens, and they and their children are engaged in every aspect of community life.
Women were well represented among Afro-Caribbean immigrants. In the first decade of the immigration, they were in the minority, but as time went by their numbers equaled and surpassed those of the men. Tens of thousands of seamstresses and dressmakers, clerks, housewives, and domestics filled the ranks of the immigrants. More women settled in the Northeast than in Florida.
We know from what we have been told of Ms. Victor's life that she came here as a farmworker. Though the media tends to portray farmworkers as Latino, a significant percentage are from the Caribbean, especially from Haiti.

According to HUD

In some parts of Florida, upwards of 35% of farmworkers are Haitian/Caribbean Islander, and many African Americans work the fields, as well.
I have friends that worked in the tomato fields of Florida. I say a prayer of thanks at each meal I eat for those who have grown the crops that wind up on my table. We must do more as a nation to better their living and working conditions. To get an idea of what it must have been like for Ms. Victor, and still is for those who do that labor, this article tells a bit of the story.

It's a 'Hard Knock' Life for Haitian Farm Workers in Miami

The work day begins between 3:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. for Haitians working in the bean fields. A "contractor" picks them up in a bus or van between 5:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m.  They pick beans or tomatoes from about 8:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. when they board the bus or van to return home.

The next morning, the process starts all over again - seven days a week.

When you talk to the farmworkers - men and women alike - they tell you the work is hard, but they don't have a choice. Even though the labor can be back-breaking most Haitians are smiling at the end of the day. They say they are thankful to be able to make a little money to send home to Haiti. Some of them prefer to avoid conversation alltogether, for fear of opening themselves up to problems with their supervisors on the farm. "It's a lot of energy, a lot of effort. Sometimes I spend the entire day working. You get up and eat or drink but then it's back to work," one woman explains. She's thin and looks drained but is smiling at her accomplishments for the day. She was able to fill more than 10 buckets.

"Thank God, we are getting along, we aren't doing too badly," a man tells me. "I don't know how many buckets I filled today, but it was a lot." Another woman who says she's 76 (but looks about 50) has just left the bean field.  She stands near the bus wearing a pastel-colored floral dress that has faded. There are three holes in the front. "I came here in 2001. In 2003, I started working in the fields. It helps me pay for everything, everything," she explains.

Haitian workers are moving into parts of the U.S. that we are not always aware of. The BBC did this feature on rural North Carolina.


Haitian invasion welcomed in rural America from Franz Strasser on Vimeo.

Mount Olive is a small town in rural North Carolina, best known for its pickle factory and southern charm. Less than two years ago the Census listed this place as having zero immigrants from Haiti among the town's 4,600 inhabitants. But over the past 18 months that has changed as thousands of Haitians have flocked to the area.

The BBC's James Fletcher has been to Mount Olive to find out why and to see how the town is coping.

We should also be reminded of the traumatic and heartbreaking entry of many Haitians to our shores in the 1970s, attempting to escape the U.S. backed repressive Duvalier regime, in packed boats. Some who drowned and washed up on Florida shores. Many others were turned away and sent back.

Haitian boat people

Large-scale Haitian immigration to the United States began during the 1970’s when Haitians, attempting to escape Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s dictatorship, sailed for the United States. Before 1977, about 7,000 boat people had arrived in the United States; by 1979, 8,300 more had arrived. U.S. policy decided that Haitians were not political refugees but economic immigrants, seeking jobs and better living conditions, making them ineligible for asylum. Thus, no Haitians were given refugee status, and every Haitian landing in the United States was subject to immediate deportation. The 1980 Mariel boatlift, in which 125,000 Cubans and 40,000 to 80,000 Haitians tried to immigrate to the United States, caused President Jimmy Carter to reevaluate U.S.- Haitian policies. He created a class of immigrant, the “Cuban/Haitian entrant (status pending),” allowing Haitians who had entered up to October 10, 1980, to apply for asylum. Any Haitian entering after that date was faced with incarceration and deportation.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan reinforced the policy and began interdiction of Haitian boats. For the next ten years, U.S. Coast Guard ships returned any seized boat carrying Haitian refugees to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Interviews were supposed to be conducted on board, and anyone with a legitimate request was to be granted asylum. However, during that period, only twenty-eight applications for asylum were granted out of approximately twenty-five thousand. Many reported never having actually been interviewed at all.

Compare the treatment of those Haitians to the warm welcome for Cubans.

Though I applaud the president's championing of Ms. Victor, we should pressure him, and Congress, to change the ongoing "alien migrant interdiction" policies that adversely affect Haitians, even after the earthquake.

I suggest you read this comprehensive analysis from 2010:

Disparities in U.S. Immigration Policy toward Haiti and Cuba: A Legacy to be Continued?, which concluded:

TransAfrica, NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus released an amicus curiae brief designating U.S. interdiction policy as discriminatory and further arguing that Haitians were subject to “separate and unequal” treatment...

Although the USCIS is considering an extension of the July 20th TPS deadline for Haitians, such small modifications emphasize the need for large-scale adjustments. Both TPS and Humanitarian Parole provided for Haitians are temporary emergency measures, while Cubans benefit from a standardized, annual quota set for refugees fearing persecution. Not only does the limited scope of these visas continue the U.S.’s long standing bias against Haitian immigrants; it also serves as an example of insufficient responses to natural disasters on a global scale.

And now that Republicans are touting Cuban-American Marco Rubio as a poster wunderkind, perhaps someone in the press should ask him how his parents were any different from Haitians?

Since Ms. Victor is also a symbol of the long lines faced by those citizens attempting to cast votes, let us also urge the president and the Congress to consider and enact "Voter Registration Modernization (VRM)," which has been proposed by the Brennan Center for Justice.

This nation was founded, in the Declaration of Independence, with the proclamation that we are all “created equal.” Civic equality is at the core of the American creed. On Election Day 2012, the world’s greatest democracy once again showed its power. But Election Day was marred. Citizens who took the responsibility to vote had to stand in lines as long as seven hours. For far too many voters, these delays happened because of problems with the voter registration system. In our national elections, millions of eligible citizens arrive at the polls each election only to find their names are not on the voter rolls — often, wrongly deleted.

Today, the greatest barrier to free, fair, and accessible elections is our ramshackle voter registration system. The current system is based on a blizzard of paper records. Rife with errors, it causes disenfranchisement, confusion, bloated rolls, and long lines on Election Day. It is unacceptable for America to rely on an outdated system that prevents millions of eligible voters from casting a ballot that counts.

The United States needs a new paradigm for how we register voters. Fortunately, a nonpartisan, common-sense solution is within our grasp: Congress should enact basic national standards to ensure that every citizen who takes responsibility to register and vote can actually vote. Voter Registration Modernization (VRM), at the heart of such reforms, would help give Americans the election system they deserve.

If we can get a new law passed and a fair system put into place, the same way we had a law named for Lilly Ledbetter, perhaps we could name it the Desiline Victor VRM.

Now that would be a tribute that has real meaning.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Feb 17, 2013 at 02:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges, Black Kos community, LatinoKos, and I Vote for Democrats.

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