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'Give them right, give them freedom'

Haitian Refugee Center
al diaz/herald staff
/
Miami Herald file
The Haitian Refugee Center in today's Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami long served as a hub of activism against immigration detention policies.

In the third episode of Detention By Design, we take a look at the late 1970s - a transitory point in the history of immigration detention in the U.S.

The very first wave of Haitian migrants had come to Florida by boat and this population in South Florida began to coalesce into a true community. But the 125,000 Cubans who would arrive during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 had yet to come.

By 1976, an estimated 1,500 Haitians had landed on South Florida's shores, seeking refuge from repression and persecution. But the federal government - under the administrations of Republican Gerald Ford and then Democrat Jimmy Carter - categorically denied that the Haitians were asking for asylum.

“The people that we've talked to and interviewed have claimed that this is an economic situation,” Ford immigration official G.R. Adams told local media at the time.

The Cold War played a significant role in this dynamic, illustrating the bipartisan reluctance to allege wrongdoing by governments friendly to the U.S.

A study published by Duke University found that in 1975 and 1976, the US granted asylum to 95 percent of people who fled from Communist countries like Cuba. But when it came to people fleeing right-wing dictatorships – like Haiti – only 5 percent of the refugees were granted asylum.

Haitians, as a result, continued to be put in immigration detention with the ultimate goal of deporting them back to their country of origin.

“One of my most vivid memories was the detention of a 14-year-old girl in West Palm Beach jail, alone without her family,” attorney Ira Kurzban remembers. “It was kind of emblematic of the policy, which was, 'How do we discourage Haitians from coming?'”

The small but growing Haitian community in South Florida caught wind of this treatment. By then, many Haitians had been released from immigration detention after national organizations helped raise money to win their release.

“Haitian refugees demonstrated against the president-for-life Duvalier regime. They must go back, but they said they will never go back under such a regime, such a suppression. They are tired of being in jail. They are tired of being suppressed for so many years in Haiti, for 20 years of suppression,” said Jacques Mompremier, the director of the Haitian Refugee Center in 1977.

“Now they want President Carter... would his administration do something for the Haitian people? Give them right, give them freedom, set them free from jail.”

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.