For America's poorest immigrants, the Haitians, terra firma was hard to reach in the first place; but once here, their footing remains uncertain. When one young Haitian woman landed on Miami Beach in an overcrowded boat -- after going adrift on Cuba -- she considered the television cameras greeting her to be a warm welcome from the American people.
Nearly five years later, she picks peas and tomatoes seasonally, and neither her job nor her immigration status is secure enough to send for her four children living meagerly in Haiti.
Miami's ``Little Haiti'' is a community in limbo. Haitians here are the poorest of the poor. Many of them are either here illegally or, if they arrived before 1981, are classified ambiguously as legal entrants with ``status pending.''
Yet south Florida has become the destination of choice for Haitians fleeing desperate poverty and a dictatorship widely acknowledged to be corrupt and repressive. So many Haitians arrived in 1981, nearly 25,000, mostly on primitive vessels, that Coast Guard patrols in the Caribbean began intercepting them, cutting the flow to a trickle.
Yet Little Haiti continues to grow. Now Dade County planners estimate that 50,000 to 60,000 Haitians live in Miami.
The ghetto neighborhood of aging little houses has changed little on the surface. Yet it is transformed.
At Rev. Tom Winsky's Roman Catholic church, the central musical instrument is the conga drum. The young people bringing gifts for God down the aisles move in a lilting, swaying dance inherited from old African rites, their hips draped with bright colors. Mass is said in Creole, a combination of French and African dialects that is Haiti's language.
``The community has improved because of the Haitians,'' says Father Winsky, who publishes a monthly newspaper in Creole. ``79th Street used to be adult bookstores and streetwalkers. . . . If given half a chance, [the Haitians] will do very well.''
In spite of their uncertain status, Haitians are showing an eager adaptability. They are fast developing a reputation as wholesome and hard-working and have established a low-crime community.
At Miami Edison Senior High School, where a third of the student body is now Haitian, four of the eight students with straight ``A'' averages are Haitian. Ten of the 27 honor-roll students are Haitian.