They opened a Haitian food truck. Then they were told: Go back to your country, the lawsuit says

BARKSLEY, Va. (AP) — A couple who fled Haiti for Virginia fulfilled their American dream when they opened a variety market on the East Coast, selling hard-to-find spices, sodas and rice to the region’s growing Haitian community.

When they added a Haitian food truck, people were driving from an hour away to get freshly cooked oxtail, fried plantains, and marinated pork.

But Clement Bastien and Thislet Benoir are now filing a lawsuit against the Town of Parksley, claiming it forced their food truck to close. The couple also say a city council member cut the mobile kitchen’s water line and shouted: “Go back to your country!”

“When we first opened, there were a lot of people” asking for food, Bastian said, speaking through a translator. “The next day, there were a lot of people. And then…they started harassing us.”

A federal lawsuit alleges that the city passed a ban on food trucks that targeted the couple, then threatened them with fines and jail time when they raised concerns. They are represented by the Institute for Justice, a law firm that described a “rash of abuses” in the historic railroad town of about 800 people.

“If Thislet and Clement had not been of Haitian descent, the Parksley city government would not have engaged in this abusive conduct,” the lawsuit states.

The City Council is opposed by the law firm it hired, Pender & Coward, which said its own investigations found many of the allegations “simply not true.”

The law firm responded that the couple failed to apply for a conditional use permit and chose to file a lawsuit instead. She said the councilman cut an illegal sewer pipe — not a water line — after a food truck dumped grease into Parksley’s sewer system, causing damage.

The law firm said the council member has the authority to do so as a representative of the Ministry of Public Works.

“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 United States for decades, often at odds with the aspirations of immigrant entrepreneurs and the concerns of local officials and restaurants. The tensions can spark discussions about land use, food safety and the rights of food truck owners in underserved communities.

The Barksley conflict unfolds on a narrow peninsula of farmland and coast between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, where the population is majority white but increasingly diverse.

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

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

Barksley has two Caribbean markets, a Haitian church and a Latin American restaurant, all located near a hardware store, flower shop and popular restaurant Five & Dime.

Jeff Parks, who serves on the Accomack County Board of Supervisors, said the city “welcomed any business that operates within the rules.”

Once a transportation hub for trains and trucks hauling grain and produce, Parksley has lost two grocery stores, a bank and a clothing factory in recent decades. Some shops in the town square remain empty.

“It’s frustrating to see a city that is so open to everyone and welcomes new businesses into its storefronts only to be denigrated,” Parks said. “We have many Haitian companies, so it doesn’t make sense for this company to be targeted.”

Bastien and Benoir said they were chosen.

“We did everything we were supposed to do,” Bastian said.

The couple came to the United States in the 2000s and were granted asylum after fleeing The poorest country in this hemisphere. Benoir is a US citizen, while Bastian is a permanent resident.

They initially worked in a poultry processing plant. But in 2019, the couple opened 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, the lawsuit said. But Nicholson, the councilman, complained that the food truck would hurt restaurants that buy equipment from his hardware store.

The lawsuit said Nicholson cut a water line, leaving $1,300 worth of spoiled food, and then tried to block a food shipment and shouted, “Go back to your country!” When Bastian confronted him.

Nicholson declined to comment.

In October, Barksley Council passed a ban on food trucks, except for special events. Mayor Frank Russell said that won’t affect the food truck until its one-year business license expires.

Parksley’s position changed after the Institute for Justice raised his concerns, the lawsuit said. The city claimed that the food trucks had always been illegal under zoning laws and threatened fines of $250 per day and 30 days in jail for every day the food truck remained open.

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

“We are waiting to see what justice we get,” Bastian said. “And then we’ll see if we reopen.”

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

Disputes over food trucks in America date back to the 1970s, said Jennette Wessel, a professor of architecture at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Restaurants often accuse food truck vendors of playing by their own rules, while immigrants may face perceptions that they are doing something unhealthy or illegal.

Lawsuits often end in settlement, Wessel said: “(Food trucks) get the restrictions, but they don’t get the repeal. Or the city steps back and says, ‘OK, we can negotiate.'”

Meanwhile, the Haitian community in the region continues to grow with more people working in the poultry industry, says Thurka Sangaramurthy, an anthropology professor at American University who studies the region’s immigrant population.

U.S. Census figures show 600 people identify as Haitian in Accomack County, with several thousand more on Maryland’s eastern seaboard and in lower Delaware. Sangaramurthy said the Haitian population in the area likely numbers in the tens of thousands.

Parksley’s Haitian food truck provided something vital — familiar foods that reminded people of home — to people who often work long hours, she said.

“It’s a community that has been marginalized three times over for being foreign, black, and speaking Haitian Creole,” Sangaramoorthy said. “They feel like they need to maintain their privacy, so it’s amazing that this couple would have the courage to even file a lawsuit.”

(Tags for translation)food truck

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