When Myrto Cesaire left the instability of her native Haiti in 1980, she took the first job she could find when she arrived in Florida. She became a cabbage picker. Although she only worked in the field for a few months, she found a lifelong calling as a farmworker activist. “I saw how hard they were working, but they were barely getting paid and didn’t get any respect,” says Cesaire, who started collecting and distributing food and clothing from local nonprofit organizations.
Cesaire also saw discrimination. “People called us ‘Haitian boat people,’ but I didn’t arrive by boat,” she says. Today nearly 700,000 Haitians live in the United States. Of those, some 46,000 have Temporary Protected Status (TPS), granted following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. TPS allows those who were in the United States within a year after the quake to stay and work in the country until it is safe to return home. The Trump administration sought to end TPS for people from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, and Sudan, but extended the programs through Jan. 2, 2020 to comply with a judge’s order.
These people need to be treated like human beings.
Cesaire supports immigration reform that would provide a pathway to legal residency for TPS holders and undocumented immigrants who are making valuable contributions to the United States. Cesaire herself benefited from immigration reform passed in 1986, under President Ronald Reagan, that granted 2.7 million undocumented immigrants permanent residency. Cesaire, who worked as a cab driver for more than a decade, was able to attend school in New Jersey and become a licensed practical nurse.
Cesaire’s path mirrors that of many undocumented immigrants, who fill key jobs in industries with high demand, such as agriculture and construction. Combined, undocumented immigrants in America pay an estimated $25 billion in annual income taxes. New American Economy estimates that TPS recipients, meanwhile, earn nearly $7 billion in total household income and pay more than $1.3 billion in annual federal, state, and local taxes across the country. An analysis by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center found that terminating TPS for El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti alone would lead to a $45.2 billion reduction in U.S. gross domestic product and reduce Social Security and Medicare contributions by $6.9 billion over a decade.
Now in Georgia, Cesaire volunteers for a program run by Emory University and the South Georgia Farmworker Health Project. “I help with their health fair twice a year and interpret for the Haitians who speak Creole,” she says.
She has found meaningful work helping the community of Haitian farmworkers, many of whom have lived and worked in the United States for decades and have legal status. She joined the Georgia chapter of the Haitian American Nurses Association in 2011, started a community health fair, and, in 2016, served as its president. In 2017, the Haitian Roundtable acknowledged her service to the Haitian community. “This is what I’m meant to do,” says Cesaire, who also founded the Camyina Haitian Farmworkers and Migrants Association. “These people need to be treated like human beings.”
It is now time for Congress to help those immigrants who have been working and contributing to the United States for decades but have no legal rights, she says, echoing the words of Ronald Reagan, who promoted the 1986 amnesty legislation in an effort to protect the vulnerable population of undocumented workers. “So many generations of immigrants have come to this country to better themselves and give back,” Cesaire says. “We need to protect them all.”