Haitian-American pastor Jean Bruny feels betrayed, sad and angry.
“President Trump told us he was our champion when he was campaigning,” said Bruny, the head of the First Haitian Church of God in West Palm Beach, referring to a meeting candidate Trump had in Miami’s Little Haiti in September, 2016, when he told Haitian-American community leaders “I want to be your biggest champion.”
Bruny wants Trump to apologize to Haitians, who are Palm Beach County’s biggest immigrant community, for asking “Why do we need more Haitians? Get them out” at a meeting Thursday in which he used the term “shithole” to refer to African countries.
Trump’s reported denigration of Haitians comes at a particularly poignant moment.
Friday marked the 8th anniversary of the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake that killed perhaps 200,000 people. Following the quake, thousands of Haitians, their homes and entire towns destroyed, fled to the U.S.
“The president does not understand us. We are not coming here to do any bad thing, we are coming here for a better life and to help our family in Haiti. We pay taxes, we buy houses, we contribute to the United States,” said Bruny, who is helping organize the Haitian community to demonstrate against Trump in a Monday 10 a.m. protest march to Mar-a-Lago.
On Twitter Friday, the president denied he meant Haiti when he used the derogatory term to refer to African countries during a White House meeting on immigration. The White House has not denied that Trump used the word, saying the president supports immigration policies that give preference to “those who can contribute to our society.”
In Florida, home to more than 300,000 Haitians, rebukes of the president’s remarks quickly acquired rare, bipartisan agreement.
“He should have apologized. He used the single worst word,” said Sid Dinerstein, former Palm Beach County GOP chairman, who has been involved in Republican outreach to the area’s Haitian community. “We all say things we wish we hadn’t, but it’s a responsibility when you’re president to careful about stuff like that.”
Trump supporter Gov. Rick Scott also denounced Trump.
“If this report is true, it is absolutely wrong to say or think this. I do not think this way, nor do I agree with this kind of sentiment. I represent Florida, and we are an amazing melting pot where over 250 languages are spoken,” Scott said in a statement released by his office.
Florida House leaders, including Republicans Richard Corcoran, the House speaker, speaker-designate Jose Oliva and majority leader Ray Rodrigues joined House Democrats in a statement that read, in part: “If the remarks attributed to President Trump are accurate, they have no place in our public discourse. America’s greatness is self-evident, we do not need to tear down other nations.”
But not all Republicans were so quick to condemn the president.
Palm Beach County’s current Republican chairman, Michael Barnett, who took a group of Haitian pastors to greet Trump when he arrived at Palm Beach International Airport, isn’t convinced Trump said what he was quoted as saying.
“Right now we don’t even know if he said it. He’s denying that he even made the quote-unquote…comment,” said Barnett, the only black county GOP chairman in Florida and the lone black delegate in Florida’s delegation at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
“From what I’ve seen of his dealings with the Haitian pastors and the Haitian people at the roundtable (in Miami in 2016)…it doesn’t seem like something he’d say about the people of Haiti. Now maybe he didn’t use courteous words in describing their economic and political troubles.”
Barnett said Trump is “not a racist…He’s rough around the edges in some of the words he uses.”
Area Democrats Friday freely used the word racist in describing the president and forcefully demanded he apologize.
Palm Beach County Commissioner and county vice-mayor Mack Bernard, who immigrated from Haiti at age 10, called the president’s comments ”bigotry at its highest.”
“That is who he is,” said Bernard. “This is what he believes.”
State Representative Al Jacquet, a Democrat from West Palm Beach, whose parents came from Haiti, said, “It breaks my heart on the 8th anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, on the weekend we’re about to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s life…This is a sad day. Not just as a Haitian American but for black people in general, but for all of us, wherever we’re from. This is an attack on the American way.”
“Our country has been built by the toil of immigrants. Donald Trump’s reported bigoted remarks are disgraceful and embarrassing,” said Congresswoman Lois Frankel, West Palm Beach (D).
Lt. Nate Lesseur, West Palm Beach’s first Haitian-American firefighter, who has led rescue and fire fighter training missions to Haiti, takes a longer view of the effect of Trump’s remarks.
Lesseur says Haitian Americans should remember the reasons they and their families came to the U.S. and not be distracted by the president’s remarks.
“America gave us wings to fly but you have to have roots to know where to land,” said Lesseur. “When you remember where you came from and why you came, words won’t bother you.”
Palm Beach Post staff writer George Bennett contributed to this story.