Dear President Obama, while there is time

Flier on ground at pro-democracy protest at US Embassy in Port-au-Prince on January 28, 2016

Dear President Obama:

I tried to call you yesterday on a matter of great urgency and justice to the people of Haiti and those who love them here in the US.

But the White House comments line was already “closed” for the holidays and I was directed to the website where I could leave a “reflection” for you.

I bristled a little at the term “reflection” because what I wanted to leave was a call to action while you still have the power to take it and make the lives of thousands of people better.

Here is the call to action:

Mr. President, please redesignate Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, first authorized after the earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince in January 2010 and is now still necessary because of the devastation of Hurricane Matthew in October of this year.

And, this: Expand the Haitian Family Reunification Program — which, because of excessive restrictiveness — has not reunited nearly as many families or generated the economic benefits as it could

I have since come around to the word reflection, so here is that too.

In the last week I read two beautiful pieces. The first, about you, was written by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic, entitled My President Was Black. The second, written by Chico Harlan for The Washington Post, is entitled 7,000 Miles to Salvation.

The opening paragraph of Harlan’s piece began and ended like this: “On the 41st day of his journey to the United States, Dumano Aristide woke up in a dust-caked tent along the Pan-American Highway, with 4,000 miles down and 3,000 to go…a trip that Aristide had not yet begun to regret.”

The opening paragraph of Coates’ piece began and ended like this: “In the waning days of President Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party the full import of which no one could then grasp…They had no sense of the world they were graduating into. None of us did.”

When you were elected president in 2008, I rejoiced as I had not done before, and, I suspect, will not do again. Despite being too old for it, I let myself be sweetly idealistic about the promise of our country’s future, however checkered our past.

Tucked away deeply, I still believe that was the correct way to read your election, but I have long since lost the sweet idealism. Much of that has to do with the terrible resistance to your presidency, which, whether coded or not, has much to do with the racism and injustice your very election seemed to belie.

But, some of my lost hope, it has to be said, needs also to be laid at your feet at what seemed to me to be too-quick compromises that betrayed both the causes of justice and, not knowing you at all, also your own heart.

Over the years I would be struck by your intellect, grace and wit and then have to remind myself that I was angry at you too for the chances at justice you were squandering.

After reading Coates’ piece in The Atlantic, I was struck again by how that criticism from me can be too pat. Easy for me to say how to navigate the treacherous waters of power when I don’t have to do it. So when I read this quote of yours to Coates, I felt like you were talking to me, chastising me in a way that I deserved to be chastised: “Those are the times where sometimes you feel actually a little bit hurt. Because you feel like saying to these folks, ‘[Don’t] you think if I could do it, I [would] have just done it? Do you think the only problem is that I don’t care enough about the plight of poor people, or gay people?’”

Mr. President, not long after you took office, I went to Haiti for the first time. It was April 2009 and I was a newspaper journalist. Someone I had interviewed before the trip suggested that I read everything I could about Haitian history and, in particular, about US policy toward Haiti. He said I should do this because otherwise I would be tempted to see the stark poverty there as some kind of random bad luck of the universe — as indeed is the way it is often portrayed.

I am not a particularly spiritual person, but even after that first trip to Haiti I would swear I could feel in the air the spirits of the ancestors who had fought in the great slave revolt that would defeat the world’s major colonial powers. In 1804, Haiti would become the world’s first free black republic, something it has been punished for ever since.

Mr. President, our debt to Haiti grows daily. With each proclamation of friendship masking an action that hurts it, with each election messed with to install leaders more to our liking in direct defiance of democratic principles, the debt increases. It grows when we force agricultural and economic policies that enrich us and impoverish them, when we work to block those rightfully seeking justice.

I am sure that you could articulate a calculus of power to justify continuing the unjust US policies, now centuries old, toward Haiti. I suspect you have, to the extent you think about Haiti at all, had to reconcile that injustice with your good heart.

I am equally sure that, so far, unfortunately, you have made “the arc of the moral universe” Dr. King told us about, a little longer before it will bend toward justice in Haiti. That you are not alone in that does not make it ok.

I read that once you are out of office you are looking forward to taking on the most important job of all, that of citizen. I look forward to being inspired by your post-presidency, but while you still have the power of the presidency I am asking that you use it for justice.

In Chico Harlan’s Washington Post story, we learn that Dumano Aristide — who, before the earthquake in Port-au-Prince in 2010 forced a drastic change in circumstance, was studying pediatrics — will come to regret his harrowing 7,000 mile trip to the US where he had hopes of reuniting with family in Florida. He will come to understand that he faces almost certain deportation from the US. But he cannot turn back.

“I can feel the problems in my heart. I made this whole trip. Even just to hug my mom,” he said. “Then they can deport me.”

Mr. President, don’t deport him or thousands like him. Redesignate Temporary Protected Status for Haitians and meaningfully expand the limits of the Haitian Family Reunification Program.

This is something you can just do if you want to. There is still time.

Thank you in advance.

Nancy Young

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