On May 13, 2017, I was standing on the back of a pickup truck and addressing a couple hundred or so protesters gathered in front of the Miami field office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The demonstrators were demanding that the Department of Homeland Security prolong temporary protected status for Haitians, who first gained the designation in January 2010, after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed an estimated 300,000 and left more than a million homeless.
Temporary protected status — which DHS grants to individuals who are unable to return to their home countries because of wars, epidemics, or environmental disasters — typically lasts eighteen months. Some of the countries that have benefited, including Honduras and Nicaragua, have had the status for nearly twenty years. Nearly sixty thousand Haitians hoped to receive refuge once again.
I was expressing my support for extension when a loud cheer broke out and everyone started pointing upward. Out of nowhere, a ring of a rainbow had emerged in the middle of the cloudless midmorning sky. It inspired such jubilation that I had to step aside. I handed the microphone to Farah Juste, a Haitian singer, who began singing “Alelouya pou Ayiti” (“Hallelujah for Haiti”), one of her best-known compositions. Juste’s robust voice and upbeat lyrics reminded me of Mahalia Jackson singing “God Put a Rainbow in the Sky”:
God put a rainbow in the sky . . .
It looked like the sun wasn’t gon’ shine no more
Oh, God put a rainbow in the sky
Juste was followed by a preacher who reaffirmed what everyone was thinking, that the rainbow was a clear and positive sign that temporary protected status would be extended for the next eighteen months and all would be well, at least until the next renewal.
A circular rainbow is a rare kind of optical illusion. I had never seen one before that moment. It lasted nearly thirty rainless minutes before fading as the demonstration came to a close.
Nine days later, DHS announced that temporary protected status for Haitians would be extended for only six months, during which time the affected people would have to prepare to leave the United States or be deported. The rainbow had not kept its promise.
A rainbow, if God does put one in the sky, is meant to remind us of a covenant made with human beings after the first great biblical flood. “Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth,” God promised Noah and subsequent generations. With climate change, though, it seems as though this promise, too, is less likely to be kept. And coastal cities in Florida, particularly Miami and Miami Beach, are ground zero for climate change. What used to be enviable beachfront property is now the most vulnerable to rising sea levels, leading the rich inland to oust the poor, including newly arrived immigrants, from their lower-income housing on higher ground.
Inland and slightly higher is Miami’s Little Haiti, where I have lived for the past fifteen years. This area has been gentrifying rapidly over the past decade, and is slated by the real estate–tracking website Zillow to become South Florida’s most lucrative housing market this year. My neighbors, who decades ago bought their modest single-family homes for less than $50,000, now live just blocks from shops like Cartier, Dior, Tiffany & Co., and Prada. Many have sold and moved farther north, but others have stayed, as if determined to defend sacred ground.
Some of Miami’s poorest black communities, such as Liberty City and Overtown, are also at risk of gentrification. The most-talked-about example is the soccer star David Beckham’s proposed stadium in the middle of Overtown, a historic neighborhood that was home to Dana A. Dorsey, Miami’s first black millionaire. Overtown was where entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Josephine Baker, and Nat King Cole sang, danced, played, and spent the night after gigs at segregated Miami Beach hotels. But the area plummeted economically in the Sixties, when a new segment of the Interstate 95 led to the destruction of most of Overtown’s signature homes and businesses.
Florida’s biggest problems are income inequality and water. But if you’re not paying attention, you would think that its most ominous menace is immigrants. Though some of its leaders and officials had opposed the practice, Miami Dade has been a sanctuary city since 2013, thanks to a policy that allowed police and corrections officers to deny requests from immigration authorities. But in January, soon after Donald Trump was sworn into office, Mayor Carlos Giménez, himself a Cuban immigrant, became the first public official in the country to agree to do away with his community’s sanctuary status. A few weeks later, most of Miami-Dade’s county commissioners backed his decision.
Some lawmakers and the president of the United States believe that immigration brings in the wrong kind of people — “bad hombres,” and by implication bad women and children too — while they’re paying much less attention to the wrong kind of water brought in by climate change.
Trump’s first proposed budget reduces or cuts several programs that are lifelines to Floridians, including environmental protections, health care, Medicaid, and food stamps. These cuts would reduce many Florida natives and longtime residents to the uncertain economic status of new immigrants, some of whom must work several jobs to make ends meet. Meanwhile, temperatures continue to soar, which makes earning a living much harder for those who harvest our food and build our homes while toiling mostly outdoors in the blazing sun.
With the erratic nature of climate change, even a rainbow is no longer a reliable symbol in the so-called Sunshine State. A rainbow could signal either more sunshine or more rain. Or even more pain.