They are scientists and supermodels, NBA players and college professors. They design Chrysler cars and negotiate on “Shark Tank.” Their roots are in Haiti, the world’s first black republic, which fought off slavery decades before the United States did. But many of their contributions are being made here.
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is often in the news for its crises, including the earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, that killed an estimated 200,000 people. President Trump reportedly referred to the country on Thursday as a “shithole.”
On Friday, the eighth anniversary of that quake, Haitian Ambassador to the United States Paul Getty Altidor said he would use the publicity surrounding that remark to introduce a new narrative — across the political spectrum.
He said he wants American liberals to view Haiti as a nation capable of creating businesses, jobs and wealth, and he wants Trump and other immigration hard-liners to see Haitians who come to the United States as contributors to the nation.
“Most people would not think of scientists or engineers or tech folks and Haiti in the same sentence,” he said during a tour of the embassy, which occupies a Beaux-Arts mansion on Massachusetts Avenue NW.
The United States is home to more than 630,000 Haitian immigrants, not counting their U.S.-born children. About 50 Haitian Americans have been elected to public office. Haitian immigrants send an estimated $2 billion a year to their homeland, mostly from the United States — one of many reasons that Haiti and some U.S. lawmakers want to include in the immigration package being negotiated on Capitol Hill new protections for the nearly 60,000 Haitians granted temporary protected status in the United States after the earthquake.
The Trump administration announced in November that Haitians’ protected status would expire in July 2019, saying the country had sufficiently recovered from the earthquake for people to return home.
Haitian immigrants tend to have slightly lower education rates than Americans overall, but their children’s education levels exceed the national average. Fourteen percent have advanced degrees, compared with 11 percent for the general U.S. population.
Friday was supposed to be a day of mourning for Haitians, with candlelight vigils, religious services, meditation and prayer. Altidor, who escaped the Hotel Montana in Haiti seconds before it collapsed and joined in the search for survivors, expected Friday to be a quiet day of reflection.
Instead, he toured media outlets and monitored the news from Port-au-Prince, where the U.S. chief of mission in Haiti was meeting with Haitian officials to discuss the furor over the president’s reported remarks.
In a series of tweets, Trump denied the comments attributed to him. But Haitian Americans, and others, demanded an apology.
“The president should be ashamed of himself,” said Jean Bradley Derenoncourt, a newly sworn-in city council member in Brockton, Mass., who fled the earthquake in 2010 and became a U.S. citizen. “My blood is boiling right now.”
U.S. Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), the only Haitian American in Congress, tweeted Thursday that “this behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation.”
The president actively courted Haitians on the campaign trail, visiting Little Haiti in Miami and attempting to seize on their frustration with the pace of rebuilding after the earthquake, and with the involvement of his opponent Hillary Clinton’s family foundation in that effort.
Thursday was not the first time Trump has offended the community, however. In December, the New York Times reported that Trump complained in June that thousands of Haitians allowed to enter the United States on visas last year “all have AIDS.” The White House denied the report.
Altidor’s email account has been inundated with thousands of apologetic messages from across the United States, an outpouring he described as heartening and a “testament of the strong bond” between the nations.
The ambassador is the son of a Haitian-born cabdriver from Boston who brought him to the United States when he was 15 and knew little English. He bagged groceries at a supermarket and finished high school, then went on to graduate from Boston College and earn a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He cites myriad other success stories: Garcelle Beauvais, a Haitian-born actress; C. Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana; Patrick Gaspard, a former Obama administration official and the son of Haitian parents who is the president of the Open Society Foundations.
Derenoncourt, the city council member, is also one of them. After the earthquake, he joined his father in Massachusetts. He learned English, bussed tables at a restaurant and ultimately graduated from Suffolk University in Boston. In January, he became Brockton’s first Haitian American lawmaker.
“That’s the American Dream, right? That’s the greatness of this country,” he said.
To expand Americans’ perspective on Haiti, Altidor said, the embassy offers tours, cooking classes (with a 5,000-person waiting list, including members of Congress), language lessons and trivia nights.
Haitian artwork is on display throughout the building. Altidor said he urges U.S. college students to study in Haiti — to learn from the country — instead of just volunteering or offering aid.
“Trump is a footnote. There’s a bigger issue here at stake,” the ambassador said. “Ultimately, there’s series of stigmas in his head. When he’s thinking Haiti, that’s what comes to mind.”