- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

BELLE GLADE, Fla. — Southeast Fifth Street and Northwest Avenue D in Belle Glade is the Third World.

The denizens of this squalor hang from the balcony over Bobby’s Market, sit on stoops in front of the Family Food Market and lean against Brown’s Soul Food, all of them looking at a sun-bleached, treeless city block-size square of concrete that was, in another life, a town square.

This is where the blue-collar Haitian refugees have fled over the years, picking citrus during the harvest season and hanging out in the off-season.

If some have their way, more refugees will flee Haiti in the wake of the latest unrest.

“Yeah, sunshine is good,” says Ronnoi St. Gerard, 50, who left Haiti in 1981, stopped for a while at his sister’s in Miami and moved here, where so many other from his country came to work the fields, as they did back home.

Mr. St. Gerard is sitting under a palm frond with several other men about the same age. They pull up a couple of disengaged maroon car seats and make themselves comfortable in the shade, speaking in Creole, smiling.

“I came here because I don’t like the city,” he says in Creole-English melange that suggests he has had little need to speak English during the last two decades. “I pick whatever is in season, I make $30,000 a year.”

And he adds, “I would not go back to live in Haiti.”

The Coast Guard has intercepted more than 1,000 Haitians since former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide relinquished his leadership as violence continues in their homeland. The numbers pale in comparison to the early 1990s, when the Coast Guard would come across 3,000 migrants in a single day.

President Bush is sticking to his policy that Haitian migrants trying to reach the United States will be returned to their country, despite calls by Florida’s Haitian-American community, the largest in the nation, to provide temporary protective status until things stabilize.

“We are calling for all repatriations to be temporarily halted and want a stay of all deportations,” says Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami.

In a letter sent last week to Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, Miss Little also asks that the United States “reverse course and extend Haitians fleeing persecution at least temporary protection.”

Advocates, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, say there are disparities in the U.S. approach to Haitian immigrants. Cubans who reach American soil are granted legal status almost immediately under the 1965 Cuban Adjustment Act.

Florida’s Haitians are as ubiquitous as Hispanics are in Texas and California, working as doormen at the condominium complexes that dot State Road A1A down the southeastern coast, as maids at hotels and as cabdrivers.

But when they get to the United States, many are unable to grasp the freedom of American life, said Ramone Edmonds, an American-born 31-year-old network project manager in Alexandria, Va.

“People don’t know that in America, there is a strong middle and upper class of Haitians,” said Mr. Edmonds, who last fall started a club for Haitian professionals, many of whom got their start in Florida.

“But Little Haiti is like Port-au-Prince, so when people come here, they head there and replicate the life they had in Haiti.”

And they sometimes fall prey to the temptations of the neighborhoods and undesirable American ways.

“The guys from Haiti come here and see the Americans not going to school, so they don’t go either,” says 17-year-old Rudeline Ceralus, who lives in the upper apartment of a two-story dirty, white stucco house in Belle Glade with her parents and two sisters.

She nods to a group of young men playing basketball in a park across from her home.

“They come here and they see these other kids talking back to the teachers, and they think that’s how they do things in America,” says Rudeline, who came to the United States in 1999 with her parents, who pick produce. “I never saw that when I went to school in Haiti.”

Eighty miles to the southeast of Belle Glade, Miami’s Little Haiti looks like a beacon of prosperity in comparison.

The 15-block area was left open to immigrants after whites fled following race riots in the 1960s. It is now a starting point for newcomers.

“This is their first stop now in the U.S., in Florida,” says the Rev. Wilner Rejouis, a pastor at a 40-member Church of God in Little Haiti. “They come here for a little while, then move on.”

Many propel themselves to suburbs such as Kendall in Miami-Dade County, or north to places like Lauderhill and the tonier parts of Fort Lauderdale.

The fact is that many more Haitians make it out of the urban conundrum than remain, but they are quickly replaced by newcomers. So the decrepit streets remain the same and the crime rate stays high.

America still provides a better life than their native country, where life expectancy is about 50 years and 5 percent of the population is HIV positive.

So the $40 to $50 a week Annette Joseph makes selling anything from soap to shelled peanuts out of the trunk of her brown ‘80s-era Pontiac Grand Am is fine with her.

“I am happy, very happy,” says Mrs. Joseph, 42, whose came to Belle Glade in 1996. Her English is choppy, but, she says, “I know I have to speak English because I am here in Florida.”

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