'You left for persecution… the solution is not to put you in jail'
You can find the transcript for this episode here.
Immokalee, Florida is both an unlikely place for the modern history of immigration detention to have its roots, and a very obvious place.
The small town on the edge of the Everglades in southwest Florida is today known as the home of Mexican and Central American laborers that grow and harvest tomatoes for the rest of the U.S. during the winter growing season, making it a longstanding focal point for intersecting issues of immigration and labor.
But a lesser known history is revealing. In the early to mid 1970s, the town played host to the origins of the modern immigration detention system in the U.S.
The second episode of the WLRN News podcast series Detention By Design, follows the story of Abel Jean-Simon Zephyr, a Haitian who arrived in Miami by boat in 1973. After asking for political asylum at a federal court hearing, authorities sent him and others to a small Collier County jail in Immokalee.
“We began to realize something went wrong, and we think that if you came to the country - United States or whatever – you left for persecution, you ask for political asylum because you or your government is a repressive government - the solution is not to put you in jail,” Zephyr tells host Danny Rivero.
The facility was originally built to house people facing charges for things like robbery, shoplifting and assault. But quickly, the number of Haitians seeking asylum held there outpaced the number of inmates waiting for trial or serving short sentences.
For federal officials, collaborating with local governments on immigration detention was pragmatic and cheaper than trying to reopen federal detention centers that had long since been closed. And on their side, the local sheriff’s office saw an opportunity to make money by holding the immigrants.
“These people aren't even accused of a criminal offense. They are potential refugees, and we'll cut you a check,” says Brianna Nofil, an immigration detention researcher at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
After several months detained in the tiny rural jail, and with no actual rules guiding how the federal government responded to this kind of immigration, frustrations among the Haitians reached a breaking point.
Zephyr and his countrymen planned an uprising on the 170th anniversary of the final victory of the Haitian Revolution, when their ancestors freed themselves from French colonialism and slavery.
“The intention was very clear. We know if we escape it’s going to be a problem. We want to make a political statement. Especially: It was a day of revolt in Haiti, so we're going to revolt the same way we revolt against the French to free ourself from slavery,” recalls Zephyr.
In the aftermath of the uprising, a tragedy happens in Miami that would alarm the country and spark activism that forever changed the course of this story.
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.