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Marking 50 years of Haitian boat people, amid threats to the Biden migrant parole program

At the Little Haiti Cultural Center, members of the Haitian community recite BOTPIPEL by Haitian poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy during commoration of 50 years of Haitian boat people in South Florida
Wilkine Brutus
/
WLRN
At the Little Haiti Cultural Center, members of the Haitian community recite BOTPIPEL by Haitian poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy during commoration of 50 years of Haitian boat people in South Florida

A year-long tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants arriving in South Florida over the last 50 years was concluded with a moving ceremony in Little Haiti this week, at a pivotal time for the Biden humanitarian migrant parole program.

A year-long tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants arriving in South Florida over the last 50 years was concluded with a moving ceremony in Little Haiti this week.

Migrants who arrived on Florida's shores in December of 1972 are believed to have been the first in modern times to have made the treacherous trek by boat.

But the tribute’s conclusion comes at a pivotal time, as Democratic President Joe Biden faces mounting pressure from Republicans to sunset the humanitarian parole program that is currently allowing tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants to come to the U.S. safely.

READ MORE: Waiting for America: One year later, relief and frustration for migrants in Biden parole program

The Pwojè 12 Desanm or the December 12th Project — a reference to the date in 1972 when the first Haitian "boat people" arrived — was launched last year on its 50th anniversary.

The Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center partnered with several local organizations to celebrate the milestone. This included political and economic-based events, such as the 2023 Haitian American Community Agenda Conference, to events like Eritaj, a contemporary musical demonstrating how Haitian women help forge Haitian history.

The closing ceremony this week featured a panel hosted by WLRN’s Wilkine Brutus. Abel Jean-Simon Zephyr, one of the first Haitian migrants to arrive in Florida by boat in the 1970s, was on the panel alongside activist Santra Denis, founder of grassroots organization Avanse Ansanm, and immigration attorney Ruth Jean.

<b>Gepsie</b> Morisset-<b>Metellus</b>, co-founder and Executive Director of the Haitian Neighborhood Center Sant La, speaks at Pwoje 12 Desanm closing ceremony.
Wilkine Brutus
Gepsie Morisset-Metellus, co-founder and Executive Director of the Haitian Neighborhood Center Sant La, speaks at Pwoje 12 Desanm closing ceremony.

The closing ceremony included a near 10-minute montage video, "Voices of Triumph: A Journey of 50 years," which celebrated Haitian pioneers and trailblazers.

Sant La's committee members also recited the famous poem "Boat People," by celebrated Haitian writer Felix Morisseau-Leroy, which questions the social and political intent behind using "boat people" to dehumanize Haitian migrants. In recent years, Haitian leaders have made efforts to reclaim the once disparaging term.

While those issues are still being raised today, the troubling situation in Washington, D.C., was also top of mind.

Republican leaders are seeking to raise the bar for asylum and humanitarian parole, along with forcing people accepted into the program to be returned to their countries once parole ends — in exchange for funding more support in Israel and Ukraine. President Biden could make "significant compromises on the border," according to a report from the Washington Post.

Santra Denis said the lives of migrants in the parole program should not be up for negotiation.

“How do we hold people accountable who don’t think our people are worth it,” Denis asked. “Because I think they’re signaling to us that one group of people are more important to others.”

Republicans argue that the US can’t send wartime funds to Ukraine and Israel while immigration crisis continues on the southern border along with backlogged immigration courts.

Immigration attorney Ruth Jean said the Republican reasoning sounds “xenophobic” because the Congress can “do something about the border without it being connected,” she said.

You can read 'Waiting for America,' WLRN's series on the Biden humanitarian parole program, here. The WLRN podcast series Detention By Design explored how the arrival of Haitian and Cuban migrants by boat shaped today's immigration and detention system.

Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Wilkine Brutus is a multimedia journalist for WLRN, South Florida's NPR, and a member of Washington Post/Poynter Institute’ s 2019 Leadership Academy. A former Digital Reporter for The Palm Beach Post, Brutus produces enterprise stories on topics surrounding people, community innovation, entrepreneurship, art, culture, and current affairs.