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Detention By Design
Limited Series

As recently as 1955 there were virtually no immigrants held in detention in the U.S. Today, the federal government holds tens of thousands each day, in 130 facilities across the country. But the story of how we got here did not start at the U.S.-Mexico border - it started on Florida’s shores, 50 years ago.

Through personal histories and meticulously compiled archival materials, Detention By Design will tell how the arrival of Haitian and Cuban migrants by boat in the 1970s and 1980s - and the crude experiments in small Florida jails that followed - shaped the immigration and detention system that we have in this country today.

Detention by Design is funded by The Shepard Broad Foundation.

Latest Episodes
  • As the immigration detention system flourished since the 1980s, it led to the creation of the private prison industry. The last episode of WLRN's podcast Detention By Design looks at the inextricable links between the two, and how, in turn, the picture has gone full circle in 2022, leaving us in a place very similar to the early days of Haitian and Cuban arrivals in Florida.
  • The amount of Haitians held in immigration detention skyrockets and the federal government starts holding them in federal prisons. Facing accusations of racism inside and outside the courts, the Reagan Administration decided to make a drastic policy shift: instead of treating Haitians like everyone else, it would now treat everyone else like Haitians.
  • Episode 4 of Detention By Design looks at the 1980 event that came to be known as the Mariel Boatlift and the turning point it marked for the U.S. immigration detention system. As 125,000 Cuban refugees landed in Florida, most spent only a day or two in a processing center - while Haitians were held for much longer. The lessons learned by the federal government during this often chaotic time would shape the years that followed.
  • By 1976, an estimated 1,500 Haitians had arrived in South Florida by boat. Even amid widespread repression and persecution at home, successive U.S. governments categorically denied Haitians were asking for political asylum. In the third episode of Detention By Design, we look at how the Cold War shaped immigration detention in the late 1970s - with those fleeing Communist regimes being granted asylum, while Haitians were being thrown in jail.
  • The second episode of Detention By Design follows the revealing story of Abel Jean-Simon Zephyr, a Haitian who arrived in Miami by boat in 1973. He asked for political asylum, but authorities - caught flat-footed - paid the sheriff's office at remote Immokalee, Florida, to hold him and others at its tiny jail. It marked the miserable, and at times tragic, beginning of the modern immigration detention system.
  • The first episode of the Detention By Design podcast looks at how Haitian president Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier went from popular Black nationalist to dictator, starting a reign of terror that forced the first wave of refugees to set off in rickety boats to Florida's shores 50 years ago. A new phrase was coined - 'I'd rather get a shark visa' - and a new era in American and Haitian history began.
  • America’s immigration detention nightmare started in Florida. Listen to the trailer for WLRN's new six-part series.