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'To risk your life through a shark visa is better than to just stay'

U.S. Coast Guard photographs of Haitians at sea, 1981
U.S. Coast Guard
U.S. Coast Guard photograph of Haitian refugees at sea off the coast of Florida, 1981

Marleine Bastien is still haunted by the screams.

During the reign of Haiti's ‘President for Life’ Francois Duvalier, anyone who dared dissent in any way could be jailed, beaten, killed – even buried alive.

Living near a cemetery as a young girl, she would be awakened in the middle of the night by the horrific sounds of victims being tortured by his henchmen. “I’ve always been a very light sleeper and I would hear the cries,” she says. “You would not even be a human [being], you know? And they would bury the person. The person is not even dead yet.”

The first episode of WLRN's podcast series Detention By Design, released today, looks at the brutality, political repression and desperate economic conditions - for which the U.S. bears some responsibility - that drove the first Haitians to face the ocean and flee by boat to Florida in the 1970s.

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

“Haitians sort of coined the phrase for this choice to survive, and it was ‘I’d rather get a shark visa,’” Gepsie Metellus, who left Haiti aged 12, tells host Danny Rivero. "Because to just risk your life through a shark visa is better than to just stay there and be at the mercy of all of these forces."

In December of 1972, a small boat with 65 Haitians landed in Pompano Beach. The ship's captain told reporters he was an escaped political prisoner. It marked the beginning of a new era for both Haitian and American history - and the effects on our immigration and detention system can still be felt today.

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.