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Sundial Now: Detention By Design - the reporter’s notebook

U.S. Coast Guard photo of Haitians arriving in Florida in 1981.
U.S. Coast Guard
U.S. Coast Guard photo of Haitians arriving in Florida in 1981.

The topic of immigration and detention is often synonymous with the U.S.- Mexico border in the news. But the roots of the country’s current immigration policies can be traced back to South Florida.

“It's a fascinating history and it's a very local history, which I think people might not suspect,” said WLRN reporter Danny Rivero, who tells that story in the new podcast Detention By Design. “This first happened in Miami. This is a Florida story.”

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He recalls reading a line in a news article about immigration during the Trump Administration that linked recent immigration detention to the Haitian refugee experience in South Florida. That sparked his deep dive into the past – to better understand this present moment.

“We're known now in Miami, specifically, as a melting pot. There's immigrants from everywhere and it's kind of a celebrated thing in popular culture and whatnot. In the 70s and the 80s it was not that way.

"Huge parts of this country were threatened by what this melting pot meant for the future of the United States of America. And then that led directly to the implementation of these detention policies and of hard-line immigration policies, anti-immigrant laws being passed, a lot of that started here in South Florida,” he said.

Currently, tens of thousands of immigrants are in detention centers in the United States, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1955, there were only a handful of people being held in immigration detention.

“In the 1950s, the U.S. government was facing a lot of pressure to end immigration detention in a large part because the people that were being detained were Eastern European and a lot of them were accused of having ties to the communist parties,” said Rivero.

Those immigrants were being placed in detention for months. The public’s backlash influenced the federal government, under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, to halt immigration detention - but that only lasted until the 1970s and 1980s, with the arrival of Haitian and Cuban migrants by boat.

"They looked at the United States as a land of freedom. They were going to come and be free - and what they found was not that."
Danny Rivero

Abel Jean-Simon Zephyr was among the first Haitians to be put in immigration detention after arriving by boat in 1973. He and a group of others were fleeing the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti.

First, they made it to Cuba and then finally, to South Florida. “I remember vividly that it was plain daylight and the Cuban military escorted us to international water…and then we were on our own,” he said.

On the podcast, he recalls calm waters and sunny skies. It was a calm before the storm that would be their arrival and detention once in the U.S.

“There was a mass migration happening from Haiti at the time to the Bahamas, to the Turks and Caicos… They looked at the United States as a land of freedom. They were going to come and be free - and what they found was not that,” said Rivero.

Zephyr’s experiences became the groundwork for the immigration and detention system in place today.

These stories set in South Florida are also a personal pursuit for Rivero.

“I'm Cuban. My family didn't leave on a raft. We know people that did, but they were not the only ones. There's a lot of people that really could have died getting here and that are now here,” he said.

“We know the stories of the people that survived, but there are so many unknown stories that it's important for us to pay homage to them and to recognize that they had dreams too.”

Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the former lead producer behind Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also worked on visual and digital storytelling.
Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org