Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, Congress’ newest member, is ready to fight for Haitians

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, the newest member of the House of Representatives and the first Haitian from Florida to join Congress, is taking office at a critical time for Haitian politics.

In recent years, a series of natural disasters, a presidential assassination, and an uptick in gang violence and kidnappings have threatened the country’s democracy. Cherfilus-McCormick, who is also the first woman to represent her district, said her special election win comes with a certain kind of responsibility for the Haitian community in her district and elsewhere.

“I am here to bring that voice and understanding and cultural competency of being a Caribbean woman, being a Black woman and being a district full of minorities and being a district that suffers the same,” she told the PBS NewsHour. “So it’s a huge responsibility, and I’m excited for the challenge because now we get to tell our story.”

Nearly half a million Haitian Americans call Florida home, giving the state the largest population of the diaspora. For the first time in nearly 50 years since Haitians began migrating to Florida, they will have a voice representing them. (Mia Love, a Utah Republican elected to the House in 2014, was the first-ever Haitian American elected to Congress.)

Before pivoting to politics, Cherfilus-McCormick, a Democrat, worked at the Trinity Health Care Services, an at-home care provider, since 1999. About 11 years later, she became CEO of the company. Her role allowed her to use her legal background to understand health care policy.

Her frequent trips to the U.S. Capitol with advocacy groups — to lobby for health care reform — inspired her decision to run in 2018, and again in 2020. She lost both times to the incumbent Hastings, who represented the state for nearly 30 years. After Hastings died of pancreatic cancer last year, Cherfilus-McCormick ran for a third time on a progressive platform in the firmly Democratic District 20. She beat 10 other Democrats in the primary by just five votes. She then won the general election by 78 percent of the vote.

The PBS NewsHour spoke to Rep. Cherfilus-McCormick after her swearing-in ceremony last week to learn about her journey to Congress and what she hopes to accomplish.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You went to Howard University. You’re familiar with D.C., but instead of being a student, you’re now here as a member of Congress. What does that feel like?

It feels unbelievable. I never dreamed of being here in Congress. I know that the times when I used to come here, I always said I loved it because you got to have real conversations about really what the plight of Americans are. And I just thought it was a great opportunity to be here and talking to different members. Now that I’m here, it’s like, I can’t believe I’m actually the member who people are going to talk to.

As you know, you’re the first Haitian American from Florida to be sent to Congress, and you’re also the first woman to hold this seat in your district, specifically District 20. What’s that like?

When I see Haitian people, they’re like, [in Creole] “Sheila, what’s going on? I need to talk to you.” And I’m like, “Yes mami?” Everyone is “mami” and “papi” The expectation is that you now would be the singular voice to talk about the Haitian American experience, to talk about Haitian immigration policies. [U.S. immigration policies are] just not equally balanced when it comes to other countries. And to talk about Black and brown immigrants who are living in South Florida and immigrants who are living in Florida, period. So the responsibilities change. And it’s a huge obligation to actually start redefining policy, because you meet people who want to talk about Haitian policies and tell you what Haitian policy should be. And you’re like, “I’ve been Haitian all my life.” I’ve been talking to the community all my life, and I’m not here to parrot anyone.

I am here to bring that voice and understanding and cultural competency of being a Caribbean woman, being a Black woman and being a district full of minorities and being a district that suffers the same. So it’s a huge responsibility, and I’m excited for the challenge because now we get to tell our story. Even though the media consistently tries to paint us as one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere and such a disheveled country and not democratic. But when you meet Haitian people, that is not who we are at all. We’re just not the people who they paint. I’m happy to take control of our narrative.

What is your promise or your plan for your Haitian constituents, especially since there’s this responsibility to represent the Haitian community in a different way?

The biggest goal in the one that we have is most pressing right now is stability. We have to figure out how do we help Haiti become more stable. And I do believe that starts with a fact-finding mission where we can actually start finding out what’s really going on in Haiti. How do we support a democratic process, and how do we incorporate and include Haitian American organizations and Haitian Americans in the United States? Haitian Americans in the United States provide most of the funding to stimulate Haiti’s economy. There’s millions, if not billions, of dollars that come from Haitian Americans who live here who are sending money.

All my life, I remember working hard and sending money home, working hard and sending money for everyone else. So we sustain Haitians and Haiti’s economy. So I think when you have people who actually have a real buy-in, they want to see success. I want Haiti to thrive so I can keep my money. I want my people there to be safe.

Immigration reform was a huge part of your campaign. Many Haitians seeking asylum were sent back when their temporary protected status expired. What change are you advocating for in terms of helping refugees?

Haitians who are looking for citizenship or admittance into the United States are really facing challenges that we see in other nations. In other countries, they’ve been welcomed. So why not us? When you look at the disturbances going on in Haiti, from the assassination to the earthquake to gangs taking over, it is very clear the Haitian people fall into the category for asylum.So why not give Haitian people asylum? And if you look at it, it’s because of all the rhetoric that’s been going on for years. You know, “Haitian boat people.” Every time an election is coming up, they want to give you an immigration scare, an immigration crisis, and who do they want to show? They want to show Haitian people. So you know, they could become scary. But that’s a tactic used by the [Republican Party]. And we don’t look at who’s actually been negatively impacted. That needs to stop.

In the middle of a tense battle to get the president’s agenda passed, Build Back Better had been stalled. Voting rights have been stalled. The president said that he wants to pass this legislation into chunks and get whatever pieces he can through the House and Senate. What is your stance on the matter?

We can’t afford to break it down into chunks. Not right now because what we see is that we have a Republican Party who is really bent on obstructionism. So they’re going to keep trying to block everything because they have a point to prove. And so that’s why I said that if you want to say that you want to change something, pull it out. Please tell the American people very plainly what you want to take up. Let them know, “I want to take away your child tax credit, and you might go into poverty.” Let’s make it clear. Because when you start talking in those terms, no one said they’re not going to tell you that. Because we see every thing, every initiative, every bill that was supposed to go out to the American people to benefit the American people, there’s always an excuse for it not to get there. So breaking it apart is going to be an excuse for the American people to end up getting zero, and we have to be very vigilant not to let that happen.

Health care was a big part of your campaign. You worked for Trinity Health Care Services for several years. How has your experience in the health care industry informed your policy ideas? What is the biggest gap you think there is in health care and how can we fix that as a country?

It really allowed me the opportunity to use my legal background in the health care space. And so what we did in our business really specialized and worked a lot with Medicaid and Medicare, which are federal programs. So I really understood the disconnect that happens a lot of times when it comes to funding. I was kind of like the bridge between the federal government and actual patients and providers, ensuring that they were being reimbursed, ensuring that the actual implementation of laws that were being passed, that they were actually manifesting the intention of the law. The argument that I heard about why Medicare for All wouldn’t work or universal health care was because they can’t afford it. But I looked at it and I said, “You know, the biggest problem that I see with our managing any kind of budget health care budget is that there are different comorbidities that really, really absorb a lot of the funding.” So the beginning is incorporating preventative health care measures and means and treatments.

Republicans have dominated elections in Florida for years. Trump won the state in 2020. Gov. Ron DeSantis is a Trump loyalist. What challenge does that represent for your ideals and policy goals?

It’s a huge problem that we’re facing, especially when you look at Trump loyalists and what they did on Jan. 6. Now, I see it precipitating throughout all the states. More specifically, when we look at my district, we’ve never had the Proud Boys really involved in our elections. We’ve never had a white supremacist at our polls. But in this special election, we had white supremacists at our polls drawing up the white supremacy sign wearing Make America Great Again hats and who were out there calling the police on elderly Black women. So, it’s becoming more intensified, our fight for representation, our fight for our voice. When you start incorporating terrorist groups, white supremacist groups who are clearly there to intimidate and violence, and they’re are arriving at the polls and historically Black areas that’s when you understand really what the fight is about. The fight is about our democracy.

There’s a strategic and a national plan to roll us back. It looks very similar to what happened before Jim Crow, and even though we may not want to realize it. And that comes directly from Donald Trump’s mantra, making us doubt elections. We can’t be afraid to call out these people because at the end of the day, they only believe in power. It’s about their power, it’s not about our people, and they’re determined to destroy our democracy if they’re not elected.

Over 25 House Democrats have announced that they will not be seeking re-election in November. The upcoming midterms are critical for Democrats to gain enough seats to pass the legislation that’s been held up for the past year. What should Democrats be doing to earn more victories?

Organizing, organizing, organizing. We have to take control of our narrative and let the entire country know what we’ve been fighting for, and let the entire country know what Republicans have been fighting for. Democrats have consistently been fighting to ensure that the people recover, that the people were bailed out, that the people had access to health care, that the people had access to vaccines, had access to masks, that our children were protected when they were at school. So when you look at what Republicans have been doing, they have been increasing their fight against democracy and voting rights. They’ve been increasing their fight against women’s right to choose. They have been increasing their fight into obstructing government from even the present elections by having the [Jan. 6] insurrection. The violence that has taken over the Republican Party, the hatred that has taken over the Republican Party is dangerous. And so we have to go out there and let the people know that this is not the time for you to think about the old party. This is not the old Republican Party.

Lastly, while you’ve just had this incredible victory, the truth is you can’t rest just yet. In November, we’re going to have midterm elections. How do you plan to build trust with your constituents to keep your seat?

I’ve been running literally since 2018. It’s been nonstop, and we’ve been fighting and becoming better and better and stronger and stronger. When we started out this race, we knew that we were going to be campaigning for 18 months. And we knew that, as a first-time member of Congress, that everyone would be watching. This is an opportunity to prove ourselves. We won because the district wanted a fighter. The district wanted a new face, and they wanted someone who didn’t want the position just to get paid. They wanted someone who was going to go in and do it because their heart was in it, and we’re going to continue putting our heart in it for the people.