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America’s immigration detention nightmare started in Florida. Introducing WLRN’s new podcast: Detention By Design

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Fifty years ago in December, what is broadly considered to be the first boatful of Haitian refugees to make it to the U.S. in recent history, landed on the shores of Florida. Before long, thousands followed, fleeing the brutal dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier.

The arrival of Haitians by sea sparked a wholesale change of how the immigration system works in the U.S. Specifically, it marked the beginning of the modern era of mass immigration detention.

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Starting next week, WLRN News’ podcast Detention By Design will take you through the arrival of Haitian and Cuban immigrants by boat in the 1970s and 1980s. It will look at how these waves shaped our immigration and detention system — even more than events on the U.S.-Mexico frontier — and how this is still playing out today, as record numbers of refugees come to our shores and southern border.

The limited series, with new episodes dropping every Wednesday, follows the station’s award-winning podcast Tallahassee Takeover and the WLRN-led multimedia project Class of COVID-19, which won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.

Through deep, personal histories and meticulously compiled archival materials, Detention By Design tells the little-known story of how crude experiments in small Florida jails served as proof of concept for our national detention network.

The disparate treatment of Cuban and Haitian refugees upon their arrival illustrates how Cold War-era anxieties helped shape a modern system that is tinged with racism and double standards. Today, the U.S. has more than 130 immigration detention centers spread across the country, holding tens of thousands of migrants each day.

“You ask for political asylum because your government is a repressive government. The solution is not to put you in jail. I don’t know what you call it, but it's not fair.”
Abel Jean-Simon Zephyr, who sailed to Florida from Haiti in 1973

Things have not always been this way. As recently as 1955 there were virtually no immigrants being held in detention. But as Abel Jean-Simon Zephyr, who arrived by boat in 1973, tells the podcast, the situation changed dramatically when he and other refugees from Haiti started arriving on South Florida’s beaches.

“We began to realize something went wrong,” said the Haitian immigrant, who was among the first to be thrown in immigration detention in a local jail. “You ask for political asylum because your government is a repressive government. The solution is not to put you in jail. I don’t know what you call it, but it's not fair.”

READ MORE: As gang atrocities and gun smuggling become commonplace, Haitians tell PM to resign

Beyond the experience of Haitian refugees, the fallout from a mass exodus of 125,000 Cubans to Florida in 1980 is explored in the series.

Although the vast majority of Cubans who arrived during the Mariel Boat Lift were immediately processed and released, many Cubans were transferred to holding centers in repurposed military bases across the U.S. as they awaited release. The experience would forever impact how many immigrants are treated upon arrival.

“The immigration service learns a lot from that experience, about what it’s like to kind of have custody over this number of people,” said Brianna Nofil, a researcher at the College of William and Mary. “It’s an experiment for the federal government and the immigration service, in how to hold tens of thousands of people.”

Refugee Haitian - Bahamas
Antonio Olmos/Miami Herald
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Miami Herald Library
Protesters express their anger at the conditions and treatment of detained Haitian refugees at the Krome Detention Center in Miami, 1981.

Detention By Design is a six-episode series that is equal parts domestic and international in scope. In it, we meet dictators of all stripes; people who risked lives trying to find freedom; politicians confronted with difficult realities; and attorneys and activists who fought for the Land of the Free to be worthy of its name.

It is a passion project for host Danny Rivero, who had come across a single line in a news report that traced the modern history of immigration detention to South Florida.

“For years I could not get the concept out of my head, and I started looking into it,” he said. “What I found was a deep and little-known history of how Haitian migration to Florida by sea kick-started what was then unthinkable: the federal government putting migrants in jail.

“Later, the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 added fuel to the fire on the national scale. The story I uncovered says so much about the development of Miami as a cultural melting pot, and also about the backlash from large parts of the nation against what this melting pot represented.”

To listen to the Detention By Design trailer and subscribe to the podcast, click here.

Detention by Design is funded by The Shepard Broad Foundation, in honor of its founder whose immigration story includes detention at age 14 - but also the warm embrace of the Miami community.