NATIONAL NEWS

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

Feb 8, 2024, 9:10 PM

Theslet Benoir and Clemene Bastien stand at the window of their Eben-Ezer Haitian food truck in Par...

Theslet Benoir and Clemene Bastien stand at the window of their Eben-Ezer Haitian food truck in Parksley, Va., on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. The married couple is suing the town in federal court over allegations that their food truck was forced to close. The couple also says a town councilman cut the mobile kitchen's water line and screamed, "Go back to your own country!" (AP Photo/Ben Finley)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Ben Finley)

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.”

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