A Refugee Crisis at the Southern Border Echoes Detentions at Guantanamo Decades Ago

By Harrison Tremarello
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Alarming images of a growing migrant camp under the Del Rio bridge in Texas. Video of Border Patrol agents on horses chasing migrants. News footage of flights expelling thousands of people. The government’s treatment of refugees is back in the headlines.

According to Department of Homeland Security data obtained by CBS News, of the 30,000 migrants at the Texas border – many of them Haitians – fewer than 13,000 will appear in immigration court, with 3,000 now being held in detention facilities. Earlier this month, an estimated 4,000 migrants were deported and returned to Haiti.

Under U.S. law, non-citizens have the right to apply for asylum if they fear they will be persecuted if they return home. Many Haitians migrated to South America after the 2010 earthquake, and are now migrating to the U.S. to escape the pandemic-driven economic downturn, increased migration restrictions in Chile and racism, along with a belief that the Biden administration would liberalize immigration rules.

Meanwhile, Haiti is still reeling from the assassination of President Jovenal Moïse, gang violence and a 7.2 magnitude earthquake last month.

But despite the current unrest, the U.S. has deported thousands of Haitians without an asylum hearing.

This is not the first time the U.S. has refused to grant asylum to Haitian refugees. During the Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier dictatorship, the U.S. regarded Haitians as economic migrants and therefore ineligible for asylum. Three decades ago, thousands of Haitians fled political violence after a 1991 coup. The U.S. detained 12,000 Haitian asylum-seekers in prison-like conditions at Guantanamo Bay without legal representation. The majority of their claims were denied, and immigration officials informed hundreds of H.I.V.-positive migrants with approved asylum claims that they could be detained indefinitely until their court-ordered release in 1993.

Some current immigration policies mirror those of the 1990s. Today, migrants can be deported without an asylum hearing under Title 42, a law used by Presidents Trump and Biden to speed deportations during a public health crisis. Title 42 mirrors a 1987 ban on H.I.V.-positive visitors and immigrants that was used to justify the detention of asylum seekers in Guantanamo. Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that families cannot be immediately expelled under Title 42, a decision the Biden administration is appealing.

In the 90s, the government argued that asylum rights did not apply at Guantanamo Bay because it was outside of U.S. territory. More recently, Trump-era immigration laws barred asylum seekers from entering the U.S. Those laws, known informally as the Remain in Mexico program, require migrants at the southern border to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed. President Biden ended Remain in Mexico, in part because many migrants faced physical danger. But in August the Supreme Court ordered the program reinstated while a challenge moves through the courts.

HARRISON TREMARELLO, an intern at Retro Report, is a video and multimedia reporting student in the journalism and political science programs at Northwestern. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.