Progress on many of the world’s most pressing issues is driven by fearless leaders who stand with their communities and build movements that effect change. This series highlights those courageous and innovative people on the frontlines and their bold missions to create a more equitable and inclusive future for all.
Meet Marleine Bastien.
Every weekday, Marleine Bastien arrives early to her office in the heart of Little Haiti. She knows despite her prompt arrival, there will already be a line of people waiting at the door.
Marleine is the founder and executive director of the Family Action Network Movement (FANM), a Miami-based nonprofit that offers social services to the local community and organizes around issues like immigration, housing, healthcare access, education reform, and human rights.
With the impact of COVID-19, Marleine’s organization is experiencing unprecedented demand. In part because FANM works with many people with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a program that allows immigrants from countries that have suffered from unsafe situations (like violence and natural disasters) to live and work in the United States. TPS holders are among those on the front line of the pandemic response. In Florida alone, an estimated 17,900 people with TPS are providing essential services during the pandemic. Yet, because of their status, many of these essential workers will not receive coronavirus relief money from the federal government. Undocumented people are also excluded in Florida’s unemployment benefits. Says Marleine, “People are hurting. In my 39 years in this community, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Despite the obstacles ahead, Marleine is not deterred. As a young child she was inspired by the activism of her own parents who defied the brutal Duvalier dictatorship to provide healthcare and education services to locals. Since moving from Haiti to Miami in 1981, she has carried on the spirit of their work. Her fight for equity and justice continues.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
What called you to this work and to serve as a voice for your community?
I grew up in a small village in Haiti, and at a very young age my parents taught me the importance of service to others. My parents built the only school in my village to teach adults and children how to read and write. Before we could do anything else, before we could play, before we could go swim in the river (which we loved to do), we had to volunteer.
So, of course, two days after I arrived in the U.S in 1981, I did what came naturally to me. I volunteered at The Haitian Refugee Center, which was providing support to newly arrived refugees at that time. While there, I provided support to immigrants at the Krome Detention Center—the most infamous detention camp in Florida at the time. The first day I went to Krome I was shocked to see that many Haitian refugees lingered in detention centers for months, sometimes years. I think that’s what really convinced me to join the struggle for equal treatment and human rights. So, I built a family and 39 years later I’m still engaged in the struggle for justice and equal treatment.
How did your upbringing influence your journey into advocacy work and community organizing?
Under the Duvalier dictatorship I witnessed human rights abuses growing up. I can still see Haitian Macoutes walking around with people’s heads on a stick. These are things that I saw growing up and I still have these pictures in my mind. Sometimes my parents were called to save some of the villagers. So I learned advocacy in that way.
Challenges are expected in your line of work, what motivates you to keep going when you feel like giving up?
It’s hard to organize in Florida. Florida is tough. But our members inspire me all the time. That’s what anchors me. A vivid example is our work with the residents of Little Farm, a decades-old mobile home community. Back in 2015, the property was sold to a developer, and the more than 100 families that lived there faced sudden eviction.
For 18 months, we organized the mobile homeowners and the community to fight back. Sometimes we marched several miles, in the rain to City Hall. Then, we waited for hours in our wet clothes to be heard.
Together, working with our partners at the Legal Services of Greater Miami and the Community Justice Project, we were able to reach a settlement favorable to the mobile homeowners. The developers had to compensate the families who were forced out, and they extended the move out date, from February to the end of July when school was out to facilitate the children. The community knew what was happening was fundamentally wrong and they were determined to stay the course, organize, and fight back.
It's hard to organize in Florida. Florida is tough. But our members inspire me all the time. That's what anchors me.
How has COVID-19 impacted your organization and the community you support?
COVID-19 is having a very big impact on our people. First, because Florida is one of the slowest states in the nation to process unemployment claims. As a result, many of the people in our community who qualify are not receiving unemployment benefits. That then means a lot of them are facing evictions from their homes.
In terms of COVID testing, that’s been challenging as well because at the onset of the pandemic you could only line up for testing in your car—but most of our members do not own cars. They have since added a few walk-in clinics, but the process can take hours, and people do not have hours. If you are an essential worker, you have to work.
You work with TPS holders and DACA recipients, many of them from Haiti. What has this time been like for this community?
Yes, we work with many people in the immigrant community who are essential workers—working in our hospitals, our service industry, teachers, and farmers cultivating and harvesting our food. Yet, because many have TPS and are undocumented, these essential workers do not qualify for any COVID-related benefits.
This means our families are in crisis. They have to worry about where their next meal is going to be and how they are going to pay their rent. As though that wasn’t enough, they have to think about the threat of deportation—Haiti TPS work permits and documents are only valid until January 4, 2021, which is around the corner.
That is why we at FANM are calling on the Senate to protect TPS and create a roadmap for permanent residency, trailblazing a path to citizenship for all immigrants—so that those who are TPS, those who are DACA, those who are sacrificing their lives, can have a reprieve.
What are your thoughts on the global protests spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement? Has it had an impact on your own organization?
We are very proud of this movement that is unstoppable because people are working together to cry at the top of their lungs for justice. They understand that we’ve waited too long for equity and justice, now is the time. It is a movement that can be turned into a peaceful revolution, and I think it was about time. We are advocating for systemic change now because justice delayed is justice denied.
To learn more about FANM and how you can provide support, visit: https://www.fanm.org/
Editor’s Note: Since we spoke with Marleine Bastien, a court ruled on September 14, 2020, that the Trump Administration can end humanitarian protections for the more than 300,000 individuals from El Salvador, Sudan, Nicaragua and Haiti with Temporary Protected Status, threatening them with deportation. The decision to end TPS protections will uproot people’s lives and break up families. It will remove more than 131,300 essential workers who are risking their lives for our country. To advocate for legislation that creates a roadmap for permanent residency for TPS and DACA recipients, visit The National TPS Alliance.