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PARKSLEY, VIRGINIA – Haitian immigrants are used to being mistreated simply because they are black and Haitian, but enough is enough. Haitian immigrants from Florida to Indiana and now Virginia are using the federal court system to seek justice against blatant racial discrimination.

In November of 2023, a group of young Haitian men sued the state of Indiana over a law that allows immigrants in the U.S. on humanitarian parole to get driver’s licenses, but only if they are from Ukraine. The Haitian men prevailed and forced the state to repeal the law or allow everyone qualified to get a driver’s license.

Now, in Parksley, Virginia, a Haitian couple who left Haiti to seek the American dream was forced to file a federal lawsuit against the city of Parksley for discrimination.

A year ago, Clemene BASTIEN and Theslet BENOIR opened a variety market on the Eastern Shore, selling hard-to-find spices, sodas, and rice to the region’s growing Haitian community. A few months later, they added a Haitian food truck, and people drove from an hour away to buy freshly cooked oxtail, fried plantains, and marinated pork.

For the city, this was too much. In a lawsuit filed last week, BASTIEN AND BENOIR alleged that the town of Parksley forced their food truck to close. The couple also say a town council member cut the mobile kitchen’s water line and screamed, “Go back to your own country!”

“When we first opened, there were a lot of people” ordering food, Bastien said, speaking through an interpreter. “And the day after, there were a lot of people. And then … they started harassing us.”

A federal lawsuit claims the town passed a special food truck ban targeting the couple, then threatened them with fines and imprisonment when they raised concerns.

BENOIR and BASTIEN are represented by the Institute for Justice, a law firm that described a “string of abuses” in the historic railroad town of about 800 people.

“If Theslet and Clemene were not of Haitian descent, Parksley’s town government would not have engaged in this abusive conduct,” the lawsuit states.

The town council is pushing back through a law firm it hired, Pender & Coward, which said its own investigation found many allegations “simply not true.”

The law firm countered that the couple failed to apply for a conditional use permit and chose to sue instead. It said the council member cut an illegal sewage pipe — not a water line — after the food truck dumped grease into Parksley’s sewage system, causing damage.
The law firm said the council member had the authority to do so as a public works department representative.

“We expect to prevail once the evidence is presented,” attorneys Anne Lahren and Richard Matthews said.

Conflicts between local governments and food trucks have played out in the U.S. for decades, often pitting the aspirations of entrepreneurial immigrants against the concerns of local officials and restaurants. Sometimes, those tensions are fueled by racial animus and blatant discrimination. If BASTIEN and BENOIR were from Ukraine, as opposed to Haiti would the city council of Parksley would
have gone out of their way to pass a new law targeting a white business?

The Parksley dispute is unfolding on a narrow peninsula of farmland and coastline between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, where the population is majority white but growing increasingly diverse, and some
White people may find it hard to accept the diversity and competition from people who look different than them.

Black and Hispanic migrant workers from Florida, Haiti, and Latin America began picking fruits and vegetables in the 1950s. Many people from Haiti and elsewhere in Latin America now work in the coops and slaughterhouses of the expanding poultry industry, which extends north into Maryland and Delaware.

Several community members said the lawsuit unfairly maligns a town that has integrated recent immigrants into its 0.625 square miles (1.62 square kilometers).

Parksley has two Caribbean markets, a Haitian church, and a Latin American restaurant, all sitting near the hardware store, flower shop, and iconic Five & Dime. Jeff Parks, who serves on the Accomack County Board of Supervisors, said the town “has welcomed any business which operates within the rules.” Then why create a new rule to eliminate a Haitian food truck?

Once a transportation hub for trains and trucks that hauled away grains and produce, Parksley has lost two grocery stores, a bank, and a garment factory in recent decades. Some shops on the town square sit empty.

“It’s disheartening to see a town that is so open to everyone and welcoming new businesses into its storefronts to be mischaracterized,” Parks said. “We have multiple Haitian businesses, so it wouldn’t make sense that this one was being targeted.”

Bastien and Benoir said they were singled out.

“We did everything we’re supposed to do,” Bastien said. The couple came to the U.S. in the 2000s and received asylum after fleeing this hemisphere’s poorest nation. Benoir is a U.S. citizen, while Bastien is a permanent resident.

They initially worked in a poultry processing plant. But in 2019, the couple opened the Eben-Ezer Variety Market in Parksley.

The food truck opened in June on the store’s property after the couple passed a state health inspection and obtained a $30 business license, their lawsuit stated. But Henry Nicholson, the council member, allegedly complained the food truck would hurt restaurants that buy equipment from his appliance store.

Nicholson cut the water line, causing $1,300 in spoiled food, the lawsuit said, and then tried to block a food shipment and screamed: “Go back to your own country!” when Bastien confronted him. Nicholson declined to comment.

In October, Parksley’s council passed its ban on food trucks, except for special events. Mayor Frank Russell said it would only impact the food truck once its one-year business license expired.

But the lawsuit said Parksley’s position changed after the Institute for Justice raised concerns. The town claimed food trucks were always illegal under zoning laws and threatened fines of $250 a day and 30 days in jail for each day the food truck remained open.

The couple quickly closed the town’s only permanent food truck, which now sits empty.

“We’re waiting to see what justice we’re going to get,” Bastien said. “And then we’ll see if we reopen.”

The couple’s lawsuit seeks compensation for $1,300 in spoiled food, financial losses, and attorneys’ fees. They also want $1 in nominal damages for violations of their constitutional rights.

Food truck disputes in America date back to the 1970s, said Ginette Wessel, an architecture professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Restaurants often accuse food truck vendors of playing by their own rules, while immigrants can face perceptions they’re doing something unsanitary or illegal.

Wessel said lawsuits often end in compromise: “The (food trucks) do get restrictions, but they don’t get elimination. Or the city backs down and says, ‘OK, we can negotiate.'”

Meanwhile, the region’s Haitian community keeps growing as more people work in the poultry industry, said Thurka Sangaramoorthy, an American University anthropology professor who studies the area’s immigrant populations.

U.S. Census numbers show that 600 people identify as Haitian in Accomack County, with several thousand more on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in lower Delaware. Sangaramoorthy said the region’s Haitian population likely numbers in the tens of thousands.

She said Parksley’s Haitian food truck provided something vital — familiar foods that remind people of their homeland — to people often working long hours.

“It’s a community that is triply marginalized for being foreign, Black, and speaking Haitian Creole,” Sangaramoorthy said.

“They feel like they need to keep to themselves, so it’s surprising that this couple was brave to even file a lawsuit.” TrueNewsBlog salutes them for filing the lawsuit.


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