A highly praised immigration lawyer, Attorney Philip E. Berns has been providing legal services and dedicated community leadership for almost 25 years in Connecticut.
This U.S. native is fluent in Haitian Creole and Spanish as well. He helps lead several organizations. He speaks and marches for social justice when many remain quiet.
Let’s have a tête-à-tête with this genuine friend of the Haitian community.
THV: Philip, tell us about where you grew up and what your family life was like.
PEB: My parents moved to Stamford when I was three years old. I graduated from Roxbury Elementary School, and then went to private schools first in upstate New York and then high school in Vermont. I graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in science and then, after serving in the Peace Corps first in Ecuador and in Haiti, returned to Connecticut and got my law degree at Pace University in White Plains. My mother was an immigrant from France, arriving just a few months before I was born. She met my father, who was from New York City when he was stationed in northeastern France with the U.S. military in the mid-1950s. I grew up seeing her treated differently because she spoke with a foreign accent. Her English was excellent, but nevertheless, people frequently treated her like she was stupid, or tried to take advantage of her, or had stereotypical expectations of how a French person should act. Seeing her trouble communicating with people helped me learn a number of different approaches in explaining things to people.
THV: Who have been your strongest influences in life?
PEB: I would say Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, and
Ralph Nader. Basically just about anybody who has stood up and spoken truth to power.
THV: What led you to a career in law? PEB: I saw the law as a way to use the system to fight back against injustice and mistreatment. It did not hurt that it was something I cared about from which I could also make a living. When I got my law degree I had had only a little exposure to immigration law and had decided it was not interesting, but when word got out in the Haitian community that there was a Creole-speaking lawyer in the area, the vast majority of the calls I got were about immigration.
The same thing happened a year or two later when word started to get out in the Spanish-speaking community. So I decided to partner with another attorney who knew immigration law. In the end, I ended up learning quite a bit about family-based immigration law, some of the special programs and concerns that affect the Haitian and Hispanic communities in lower Fairfield County, and have, without undertaking employment-based immigration or deportation cases, focused my immigration practice on the concerns of these groups. However, it is important for me to maintain my personal injury practice (auto accidents, etc.), as the immigration practice is not remunerative.
THV: In which way, do you feel that you have changed people’s life the most?
PEB: One of the most startling moments I ever had was when I met a young man at a community event who said he knew me. I did not recognize him. He told me that I had assisted his parents and his siblings with their immigration papers and that we had met upon his arrival in the U.S. when he was ten years old. While that was gratifying to hear, what happened next completely blew me away: he introduced me to his wife, a young lady from an entirely different culture and country who also said she knew me – that I had done the immigration papers for her family and for her as well 12 years ago when she was 8 years old.
I realized that without my intervention these two people might never have made it to the United States, they might never have met, fallen in love, and gotten married and now here they were, with two of their own children. I was overcome and even today I cannot adequately describe how it feels.
Just a few weeks ago I got a text from a young lady who had moved from Connecticut to Texas a few years ago. She had been the victim of domestic abuse from her first husband and I had assisted her in getting her green card under special laws that help such victims. She texted me saying that she had just walked out of her naturalization ceremony to become a U.S. citizen and wanted to let me know how much she appreciated my assistance. She informed me that she had since remarried and had a beautiful three-year-old daughter and went on at some length about how I had changed the course of her life. You don’t find these sorts of rewards in many other areas of the law.
The efforts to push for the good initiatives and fight the bad ones would sometimes take days, weeks, and even months of effort and it could be difficult to balance running the office with being involved in the struggles of the community. Since then I have found ways to contribute less frequently, and episodically, and have joined and supported community groups that seek incremental change by working together, collaborating, and cooperating to best meet the needs of the local immigrant communities.
THV: Philip, you lived in Haiti in the early ‘80s. Tell us about that experience.
PEB: Yes, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Haiti from 1983 to 1985. The Peace Corps had given me aquaculture training (how to build
fish ponds and raise tilapia). The Haitian government decided to send me to teach aquaculture to farmers in northwestern Haiti. The funny thing is that in Haiti, after the island of La Gonâve, northwestern Haiti is the driest part of the country and there is very little water. I nevertheless found the few springs and streams where aquaculture was possible and worked with about a dozen farmers to build fish ponds and grow two or three harvests of fish making sure to invite neighbors and other interested people to see how it was done so they could follow the example after I had left.
I had started my Peace Corps volunteer service in Ecuador and have always been very cognizant of my background as being from the American middle class and from the relatively wealthy suburbs of Connecticut. When I got to Ecuador I thought I was seeing a so-called “third world country.” When the Peace Corps asked me to be one of the first six volunteers to start the pro-
gram in Haiti in March of 1983, I offered to go. When I arrived in Haiti I was staggered at the significantly greater poverty and lack of governmental services I saw in Haiti than I had seen in Ecuador. Within two hours of my arrival, while driving from the airport to town, I saw a dead and bloated body (obviously it had been there long enough to start to decompose) lying at the side of the main road, which was choked with traffic with hundreds of people walking by and around it.
I found that while the governmental provision of services in Ecuador had been somewhat crude, it nevertheless frequently functioned, sometimes quite well. The Department of Agriculture, for example, had a positive effect in many areas of the country. I did not see any Haitian Department of Agriculture activity outside its main office at the Damien center just outside Port-au-Prince. When I went to Damien, I would see rooms of clerks and secretaries sitting at their desks doing nothing. It was very discouraging to see how little the Haitian government and many (not all) of its employees seemed to care about working to make the country and lives of their countrymen better. Nevertheless, the Haitian farmers I met in northwestern Haiti were altogether different. They were real fighters. They very much impressed me with how hard they worked to scratch a living from the soil of the barren hills of northwestern Haiti.
THV: Have you been back since?
PEB: I regret that I have not. Not a day goes by that I would not like to go back, but I don’t like to stay at tourist hotels where other foreigners stay and I have lost all of contact of the people I used to stay with when I lived there. Nevertheless, it is my hope to be able to return and spend some time there again, perhaps with some of my Haitian friends here in Connecticut when they go to bring books to school children or medications to clinics there.
THV: In the rise of Xenophobia sentiment across the United States, do you have any particular advice for immigrants in general and the Haitian community in particular?
PEB: There appears to me to be steadily increasing anti-immigrant sentiment from the mid-2000s to the present, the flames of which have been fanned by many (not all) members of the Republican Party, and too often those in leadership. It is a handy wedge issue to provoke the most despicable tendencies of much of their most ardent base. The hypocrisy is that if they really wanted to get rid of the 11 million undocumented immigrants, they wouldn’t go haphazardly looking for an immigrant here and an immigrant there and deport them one by one (at the current rate of 1000 deportations a day it will take 100 years to deport them all – assuming new ones do not keep coming in). They would go after the two or three million employers who give them jobs. So the issue of undocumented immigrants is useful for the Republican Party to divide and conquer without ever having any serious intention of fixing the problem.
Keeping all this in mind, note that with the current madman in the presidency furiously stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, while there is a lot of talks, there is very little action. Trump, within moments of announcing his presidential candidacy, already started slamming immigrants. Based on his talk one would think he was deporting two, three, or four times as many people as Obama did. In fact, in 2012 Obama was deporting
over 1,200 people a day, in 2017 when Trump took over, Obama had reduced deportations to about 700 per day. Even today, almost three years since he took power, Trump has only managed to raise deportations to about 1,000 people per day. Nevertheless, the talk affects people psychologically, it affects them socially, it affects their children and it encourages behaviors that are difficult to stop and put back in their boxes – a sad state of affairs.
Regrettably, this is not the first time America has fallen far short of its ideals. More than two hundred years ago, when our country won its independence, Benjamin Franklin, one of our country’s most respected founding fathers expressed concerns that the German immigrants in Pennsylvania would never learn English and integrate (sound familiar?). In the 1840s, there was a strong xenophobic reaction to the Irish coming with fears of diseases, moral corruption, and religious differences (sound familiar?). In the 1880s the huge tidal wave of southern Europeans and eastern Europeans started coming to the United States and, forty years later in the 1920s, when one out of every 11 people living in the United States was foreign-born, there was again a big anti-immigrant reaction. In fact, those are the years that eugenics became popular, in part to stop the “breeding” of “morons” and dilution of good genes.
It is also when the Ku Klux Klan was at the zenith of its power – primarily because of the fear of immigrants and the belief they could never learn English and integrate (sound familiar?). Then there are the additional very special and terrible cases like the Chinese exclusion act of 1882 and its predecessors which were enforced right up until the 1940s that severely curtailed immigration from China and, especially, did not permit Chinese women to join their husband’s work in the United States for fear that they would have children in the United States and dilute American culture (again, sound familiar?). When the Second World War broke out people of Japanese descent living in the western United States were immediately removed from their homes and detained in camps for several years – losing their property and businesses, whereas the people of Italian descent, also originally from a country the U.S. was now at war with, were entirely unaffected.
These sad episodes eventually passed when the children of the immigrants grew up speaking unaccented English and, no longer stood out as so strange and different. I find it sadly ironic that it is the children and grandchildren of immigrants abused in the past who join in the mistreatment of later groups of immigrants (descendants of Germans joining the descendants of English colonists against the Irish, the descendants of Irish joining against the southern and eastern Europeans, the descendants of the southern and eastern Europeans now turning against current immigrant groups and so on and so on).
So what should today’s immigrants do? Rather than hiding in fear, the best course of action is to find ways to influence our politics and the future of this country. Eleven million undocumented immigrants are a lot of people. That is more than three times the population of the state of Connecticut or Utah, Iowa, Nevada, Arkansas, Mississippi, or Kansas. Only ten states have a population of more than 11 million. If they were their own state, undocumented immigrants would be the eleventh most populous state, more than, for example, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Arizona or Massachusetts. None of the 11 million can vote. However, each and everyone has friends, relatives, acquaintances, coworkers, and neighbors who could vote but haven’t.
If undocumented immigrants pushed and prodded the non-voters into fulfilling their civic duty to vote, it would completely change the politics of immigration in the United States. I like to think that undocumented immigrants can feel less powerless and might even feel empowered, by becoming active at urging these many non-voters, many of them friends, relatives, acquaintances, co-workers, neighbors, etc., to register to vote before the October deadlines and vote in November – not just the presidential elections and not just the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives elections but also for State and local elections because the anti-immigration politicians who make it to the top all started at the bottom on city councils, boards of education and county boards, and if the undocumented immigrants were to affect these elections further down the ballots, they could, over the period of a generation, completely change the politics of the United States.
THV: Wow, that’s a lot to take in. You are proposing a revolution.
PEB: Yes, I am. We’ve had an anti-immigrant, anti-working class revolution taking place right in front of our noses for decades and the chickens are coming home to roost. It will take decades to fix some of the damage (the anti-immigrant, anti-working class Supreme court, the long-term effects of having openly revived and welcomed racism in the U.S., etc., etc.), the sooner we start the better.
THV: Well, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.
PEB: Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you and The Haitian Voice readers.
Note from the editor: We have conducted this exclusive interview with Philip
E. Berns in November of last year.