Rodricks: I harbored Haitians on the path to citizenship

Hundreds of people, many of them Haitian, demonstrate against racism in Times Square on Martin Luther King Day. Activists, politicians and citizens are reacting to recent comments made by President Donald Trump about Haiti and African nations during a meeting on immigration.

Time to come clean: Thirty years ago, I hired two illegal immigrants from Haiti to paint a three-board fence on a small horse farm. I gave them the job, a place to stay for a couple of weeks, and food. I enlisted friends to help them, too. And we all felt good about it.

Che’rin Rashad and her husband, Alexanda, came to Baltimore from Miami in the spring of 1988 because President Ronald Reagan and the Congress had offered undocumented immigrants amnesty — now a dirty word among Republicans — and a path to citizenship. The deadline to apply for amnesty was short, the lines of applicants at the immigration office in Miami long. So the Rashads made their way to Maryland, where, they were told, the process was faster.


I forget how we met, but within a short period of time I was acting as one of their unofficial sponsors. The Rashads called me “Rod Roddy.” They were grateful for everything, and only had one complaint about the house where they lived, rent free, while they waited for amnesty: windows. Che’rin thought it odd that every room in the house had “weendows.”

The Rashads had entered the country on a fishing boat in 1980. They worked as fruit pickers in Florida. “In Haiti, there was nothing for us,” Che’rin told me. “You can only go so far. You cannot rise above a certain level. You can only get so much education.”


Because they had landed in the United States before 1982, the Rashads were eligible to apply for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, a historic and sweeping bill passed by Congress and signed by Reagan.

Amnesty meant undocumented immigrants like the Rashads would become legal, permanent residents. When he ran for re-election in 1984, Reagan said: "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”

The law did not do everything Reagan and Congress believed it would: It did not stop employers from hiring undocumented workers, and it did not stop people from entering the country illegally. But it pulled 2.7 million people, including the Rashads, out of the shadows and gave them an opportunity to become citizens.

Looking back 30 years, the time when amnesty for undocumented immigrants was on the table seems almost quaint. It was before talk radio became almost-all-right-wing-all-the-time, before FOX News, before the World Wide Web, long before Twitter and Facebook, before 9/11 and the war on terrorism. It was back when compromise in Congress was still achievable.

And it was before the country’s air space became filled with demagogues such as Donald J. Trump, spewing all kinds of fear-inducing myths about immigrants, associating them with widespread criminality and “stealing” jobs from American citizens.

The Rashads came to mind the other day after Trump’s ugly comments about Haiti and African countries. I’ve looked online, but I have no idea where Che’rin and Alexanda are today. They wanted to become citizens, and more than a million of those granted amnesty did. I hope Che’rin, who had been a teacher in Haiti, achieved her dream of going to college, improving her English and finding a job that paid well enough so she could afford a big house with a limited number of “weendows.”

While Reagan remains a giant of the Old Grand Old Party — the one before the tea party, and before Trump — his support of amnesty looks like a weak moment to today’s hardliners, who go off the deep end anytime someone, particularly a fellow Republican, mentions the A word.

It’s why Congress can’t even budge on the Dreamers, despite overwhelming public support for getting that particular class of young immigrants on a path to citizenship. The polls on keeping Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — that is, protecting from deportation people who were brought here by parents who entered the country illegally before 2007 — run strong in the Reagan direction.


A Quinnipiac poll last week showed support for DACA — allowing Dreamers to stay in the country and apply for citizenship — at 80 percent.

A FOX News poll in September showed the same level of support.

And — this shocked me — in the same FOX poll, about 83 percent of voters supported a system for “all illegal immigrants who are currently working in the country to become legal residents.”

I repeat: “All illegal immigrants who are currently working ...”

That demonstrates a huge disconnect between how a large majority of Americans think the immigration impasse should be resolved and how Trump and the extreme right want it resolved: with stepped-up enforcement, more deportations that split up families, and no amnesty.

But amnesty is the way to go. Bring people out of the shadows, starting with the Dreamers and their families. Let them become citizens. Let them buy big houses with lots of windows, or none at all.