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The new immigration detention system is born

Krome Detention Center archival
Gary Rumore
Miami Herald Library
From Miami Herald series "Detention of Krome" by Gary Rumore

You can find the transcript for this episode here.

As the Mariel Boatlift drew to a close in late 1980, the amount of Cubans migrating to Florida by sea dropped significantly.

But in its place came a spike in Haitian migration, in large part due to a renewed political crackdown by dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. As episode 5 of WLRN's podcast Detention By Design explains, they would become victims of a discriminatory system that was about to explode.

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Incoming president Ronald Reagan looked to create a contrast with Democrat Jimmy Carter, under whose watch the events of 1980 played out. Soon after taking office in January of 1981, he revoked the right of asylum seekers to pay bond money — those being held in immigration detention were now there indefinitely, regardless of fundraising efforts to win their release.

It was at this point that the soon-to-be infamous Krome Avenue Facility, on the edge of the Everglades, started to explode in numbers: the camp was built to hold up to 600 people, but at times it held up to 1,600 migrants.

Krome Avenue Camp
Brain Smith/Miami Herald
Miami Herald Library;
Haitians and allies push toward the gate during a 1981 protest at the Krome Detention Center, where many Haitians were held in immigration detention.

The federal government began shipping Haitian asylum seekers to federal prisons in New York, Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Texas. It even rushed to build a new detention center in Puerto Rico.

Frustration in the Haitian community grew, not only over this treatment of refugees but also over the U.S. government’s continued support of the Duvalier regime. The situation reached boiling point after the Reagan administration reached a deal with "Baby Doc" Duvalier to patrol the seas off Haiti and return refugees to his authoritarian government.

Haitian protest Krome 1981
Antonio Olmos/Miami Herald
Miami Herald Library;
Haitian protesters express their anger during a four hour protest at the Krome Detention center about conditions at the center and unfair treatment of Haitian detainees in 1981.

Protesters, like Marleine Bastien, took to the streets of Miami. “One of the chants was like: ‘USA, USA stop supporting Duvalier! USA USA stop supporting Duvalier! CIA CIA stop supporting Duvalier!” said the activist, who arrived in Miami from Haiti in late 1981. “That was the fight.”

Uprisings took place at the Krome Avenue detention center in 1981, including one where an estimated 100 asylum seekers escaped.

Meanwhile, several lawsuits were filed against the Reagan Administration’s immigration detention policies. One of them alleged that the federal government was actively discriminating against Haitians — who made up nearly 100 percent of immigrants in detention.

INS stand guard Krome 1981
Tim Chapman/Miami Herald
Miami Herald Library;
Immigration and Naturalization Service guards in full riot gear block the road to the Krome detention center after 2,500 Haitians stormed the first gate and broke it down. An estimated 100 asylum seekers escaped the facility during one uprising at Krome in 1981, but most were recaptured shortly after.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson met with Pope John Paul II to address alleged racism and mistreatment of Haitian asylum seekers, while the Congressional Black Caucus started to pay attention to the plight of the Haitians.

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.

“It’s like classic liberal progress – a diverse community of people being detained now," said Brianna Nofil, an immigration detention researcher at the College of William and Mary.

The modern era of immigration detention had officially arrived, and over the next few years an entire nationwide immigration detention network was created. The system has continued to expand under both Republican and Democratic administrations; in 2022, over 130 public facilities are listed by the federal government as being part of this network.

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.