UNITED STATES NEWS

They opened a Haitian food truck. Then they were told, ‘Go back to your own country,’ lawsuit says

Feb 8, 2024, 10:10 PM

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

When they added a Haitian food truck, people drove from an hour away for freshly cooked oxtail, fried plantains and marinated pork.

But Clemene Bastien and Theslet Benoir are now suing the town of Parksley, alleging that it forced their food truck to close. The couple also says a town councilman 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 food truck ban that targeted the couple, then threatened them with fines and imprisonment when they raised concerns. They’re being 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 couple failed to apply for a conditional use permit and chose to sue instead, the law firm countered. 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 councilman had authority to do so as a public works department representative, the law firm said.

“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. Tensions can spark debates about land use, food safety and food truck owners’ rights in underserved communities.

The Parksley dispute is unfolding on a narrow peninsula of farmland and coastline between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, where the population is majority white but growing 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 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 of which sit 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.”

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 Nicholson, the councilman, 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 wouldn’t impact the food truck until its one-year business license expired.

But Parksley’s position changed after the Institute for Justice raised concerns, the lawsuit said. 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 is seeking 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.”

United States News

FILE - A logging truck drives on the Interstate 5 bridge that spans the Columbia River and connects...

Associated Press

Aging bridges in 16 states will be improved or replaced with the help of $5B in federal funding

Dozens of aging bridges in 16 states will be replaced or improved with the help of $5 billion in federal grants announced Wednesday by President Joe Biden’s administration, the latest beneficiaries of a massive infrastructure law. The projects range from coast to coast, with the largest providing an additional $1.4 billion to help replace two […]

13 minutes ago

President Joe Biden speaks at a 2024 Prosperity Summit Tuesday, July 16, 2024, in North Las Vegas, ...

Associated Press

Biden aims to cut through voter disenchantment as he courts Latino voters at Las Vegas conference

LAS VEGAS (AP) — President Joe Biden is trying to shore up support among disenchanted voters key to his reelection chances as he meets Wednesday with members of a Latino civil rights organization in the battleground state of Nevada. Biden is set to deliver an address to the UnidosUS annual conference in Las Vegas, where […]

16 minutes ago

FILE - The Mirage Hotel and Casino is seen in Las Vegas, on May 3, 2018. Gambling ends Wednesday, J...

Associated Press

After reshaping Las Vegas, The Mirage to be reinvented as part of a massive Hard Rock makeover

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Mirage is about to vanish from the Las Vegas Strip. Gambling ends and the doors close Wednesday at the iconic tropical island-themed hotel-casino that opened in 1989 with a fire-spewing volcano outside, and Siegfried & Roy’s lions and dolphins inside. Frenzied final days have seen standing-room crowds wagering to win […]

4 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives during the second day of th...

Associated Press

The stepped-up security around Trump is apparent, with agents walling him off from RNC crowds

MILWAUKEE (AP) — On the floor of the Republican National Convention Tuesday evening, vice presidential candidate JD Vance greeted and shook hands with excited delegates as he walked toward his seat. It was a marked contrast from former President Donald Trump, who entered the hall a few minutes later and was separated from supporters by […]

5 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives during the second day of th...

Associated Press

Donald Trump celebrated by former rivals at Republican National Convention

Former president Donald Trump was celebrated at the Republican National Convention by former rivals, including Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis.

5 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives during the second day of th...

Sponsored Content by

Former president Donald Trump was celebrated at the Republican National Convention by former rivals, including Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis.

Sponsored Articles

...

Sanderson Ford

3 storylines to get you revved up for the 2024 Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals training camp is just a couple weeks away starting on July 25, and Sanderson Ford is revved up and ready to go.

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Beat the heat, ensure your AC unit is summer-ready

With temperatures starting to rise across the Valley, now is a great time to be sure your AC unit is ready to withstand the sweltering summer heat.

...

COLLINS COMFORT MASTERS

Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.

They opened a Haitian food truck. Then they were told, ‘Go back to your own country,’ lawsuit says