‘There needs to be a voice’ for Haitian Americans, says Rep. Cherfilus-McCormick

Democrat answers colleagues who ask, ‘What’s the rush?’

As the first Democratic Haitian American to serve in Congress, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick feels a sense of urgency and destiny. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
As the first Democratic Haitian American to serve in Congress, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick feels a sense of urgency and destiny. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 8, 2022 at 6:15am

After a razor-thin primary win by less than 10 votes last year, Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick was relieved when she comfortably cruised to victory this August in her primary rematch.

But before she started winning, Cherfilus-McCormick had to learn from her losses — like the times she lost to Rep. Alcee Hastings in 2018 and 2020.

“The truth is no one had won in my district, outside of Alcee Hastings, in 30 years,” she said of her fellow Florida Democrat. “People knew my story because they saw me running for so long. They saw me evolve.”

When Hastings died, she came to Congress in a special election to fill the seat. She kept telling her story — including feeling like her “life was over” when she became a single mom, only to find it was a new beginning.

“Pretending to be perfect, or pretending to know it all, doesn’t motivate or change anything,” she said.

Now that she’s headed for an expected second term, she feels a sense of destiny. As the first Democratic Haitian American ever to be elected to Congress, she hopes she can make her colleagues see the urgent need for immigration reform. 

“If we’re not being proactive, we’re going to keep seeing it weaponized,” she said.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: What’s surprised you about Capitol Hill so far?

A: Since it was a special election, we didn’t have any preparation time. It’s kind of like, you won, be there in two days to get sworn in. I remember the first meeting I had was with Hakeem Jeffries. I said, “So when is orientation?” And he said, “This is orientation.”

Q: You’re the first Haitian American Democrat to serve in Congress, and just the second overall, after Republican Mia Love of Utah. What has that been like for you?

A: With what’s been going on in Haiti right now, especially with immigration, it really has felt like destiny. At this time, at this place, there needs to be a voice for the Haitian American community. And I have the honor of being that voice. 

We’re talking to everyone, like at the Summit of the Americas with Dr. Ariel Henry, who’s the de facto prime minister. We’re talking to influencers in the country. Figuring out how we can help Haiti be independently sustainable has been a priority. 

Q: Do you think your fellow lawmakers understand what’s happening in Haiti?

A: I was born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, and then I lived in South Florida. So my entire life I’ve always lived in areas where there is a large Caribbean population, especially a Haitian population. 

Immigration policies have not been fair to Haitian immigrants, so it’s something that is just a constant if you’re from those areas. In Congress, we live a different reality. I had a conversation with members about the urgency for us to try and get in and stabilize Haiti, because otherwise it’s just going to increase immigration. And I had a member who said to me, “Well, what’s the rush?” 

It kind of woke me up. We’re seeing boatloads coming to our border. We’re seeing boats capsized. Every time a boat comes, my constituents are waiting for their family members on the other side. My phone rings off the hook. But that isn’t the reality for many, many members in Congress. 

Q: When it comes to passing immigration legislation, what do you see as a realistic goal?

A: We have to start prioritizing it, because immigration is becoming a bigger and bigger issue for both sides. If we’re not being proactive, we’re going to keep seeing it weaponized.

One day when I was presiding in Congress, I took the subway over with a Republican colleague. I was talking to him, and he was very nice. Then, when he got up [to speak on the House floor], the first thing he said was, “I want to thank the border patrol for keeping those Haitians out of the country who were coming in to do crimes.” 

My eyes were like, “What?” I felt like, is that what you thought of me and my parents when they came here?

Immigration is constantly used by the Republican Party as a stare tactic — immigration is bringing fentanyl for the children, or immigrants are coming in to rob the country. I really don’t believe he believed any of that. There’s no way you can demonize an entire group of people and think it’s OK. That’s where it’s gone too far. 

Q: Republicans have been gaining ground in some immigrant communities, including in your home state of Florida. How should Democrats respond?

A: We have to start by telling them the truth. No matter what you want to say about Democratic policies, I show them what the Republicans say on the floor. These voters aren’t watching C-SPAN, but I wish they would, because then you would know who really believes in you and who’s articulating your needs.

I think that’s how we motivate not just the Haitian community, but the Caribbean community and even the African American community. Show them what’s being said on the floor. If politicians were bold enough to say what they say in D.C. in the community at a rally, it would be beyond a shadow of a doubt. The community would be like, “What? How dare you.”

Quick hits

Last book you read? “The Alchemist.”

In politics, can the ends justify the means? Yes.

Your least popular opinion? I can’t sing, but I think I can sing.

America’s best president? Barack Obama. 

Closest friend across the aisle? Mario Díaz-Balart. He was the one who actually swore me in. He told me, “I’m so proud to say these words for you, because you prove that immigrants don’t come here to pillage, but to succeed and thrive.”