The Trump administration’s practice of separating migrant children from their parents in an effort to deter unauthorized border crossings has stirred an uproar. Aghast and enraged, opponents — who include chief executives, members of the clergy and average Americans — have called this practice and the detention of children cruel and illegal. Protests have sprung up, and members of Congress have flocked to the border to decry the “inhumane” detention of children, deeming it “un-American.”
But this practice is nothing new. The Trump administration is not the first to use child detention as a means of excluding and deterring unwanted migrants. The U.S. government’s harsh treatment of migrant children is the product of decades of rising anxiety about unauthorized migration and uncontrolled numbers of asylum seekers and is part of a well-established pattern of using punitive measures to attempt to drive unwanted migrants from U.S. borders.
In the summer of 1994, an ongoing human rights catastrophe in Haiti, resulting from a nearly-three-year-long military coup, drove a wave of more than 20,000 Haitian refugees to seek safety on U.S. shores. Joining the Caribbean exodus were 30,000 Cubans. President Bill Clinton had closed a refugee camp at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. But the new surge in Haitian and Cuban refugees caused the Clinton administration to reverse course and reopen Guantanamo as a refugee processing center.
U.S. officials never intended the Guantanamo camp to be the primary solution to the Caribbean refugee crisis, however. To stem the flow of Haitian refugees, put an end to the bloodshed in Haiti and restore the democratically elected Haitian president, Clinton ordered a U.S. military invasion of Haiti. Once President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was returned to office, U.S. officials began emptying Guantanamo once again, sending most of the Haitians back to their country while allowing the majority of the Cubans at the camp to enter the United States.
While the Clinton administration admitted Cubans to the United States as political refugees from a communist country, it closed the country’s doors to Haitians and justified it by citing the formal restoration of democracy in Haiti in September 1994. The problem: Haitians still faced violence, insecurity and human rights violations, and so refugees had no desire to return home. They wanted safety in the United States.
But Clinton said no. At a moment when a rising tide of nativism was facilitating the passage of harsh anti-immigrant laws such as California’s infamous Proposition 187, Clinton administration officials feared paying a political price for admitting large numbers of poor, black refugees to the country.
Clinton and his aides remembered that when large numbers of asylum seekers from Caribbean and Latin American countries had showed up en masse on America’s doorstep the previous decade, a furious backlash ensued, prompting the Reagan administration to reinstitute the long-dormant policy of immigration detention. In fact, Clinton decided to use military force to restore Aristide to office in large part because he wanted to avoid having to deal with the flow of Haitian refugees that represented such a vexing problem for the previous three administrations.
And so, despite the calamity and danger that awaited them in their home country, the Haitian refugees at Guantanamo faced forcible return by the U.S. government. The most vulnerable among those facing deportation were hundreds of unaccompanied Haitian children, some as young as 2 months old, living in an area designated Camp Nine.
Theoretically, Camp Nine was not supposed to be a prison or a house of horrors. U.S. officials provided the detained children food, clothing, recreation and schooling, and they were looked after by Haitian adults designated as “house parents.”
But in reality, Camp Nine was an awful place. Children suffered horrid abuse. A 14-year-old girl was sexually abused by the president of the “house parents.” In another part of the camp, a 16-year-old girl was raped. Disobedient children were physically abused, forced to kneel for prolonged periods in intense sun or were simply sent to a children’s jail officials called Little Buckley.
And worst of all, perhaps, was the threat of being sent back to Haiti, where many of the unaccompanied children’s parents had been murdered by the military or paramilitary forces behind the coup. The detained children suffered severe depression, and some even attempted suicide.
In November 1994, the squalid conditions and the threat of deportation sparked action by the Haitian children of Camp Nine. Dressed in white, the child detainees held a prayerful demonstration and hunger strike.
Solidarity protests and rallies were organized by a coalition of some 40 organizations led by Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (Haitian Women of Miami). And national organizations such as the United States Catholic Conference and the National Organization for Women, as well as a number of celebrities grouped under the organization Guantanamo Watch, added their voices to those urging Attorney General Janet Reno to exercise her “parole authority” (which gave the attorney general the discretion to admit any alien to the country) so that those who had relatives in the United States could be reunited with their families.
The protests and political pressure intensified in March 1995 when the Clinton administration began forcibly sending the children back to Haiti. Two months later, the children of Camp Nine launched a rebellion, burning their tents and clashing with camp guards.
Finally, after months of protest, the campaign to free the Haitian children bore fruit when the administration announced that it would allow most of the remaining 123 child detainees humanitarian parole into the United States. Resistance by the detained children and the solidarity actions by their U.S. allies had freed them and ensured their entrance to the United States. But not before more than half of the unaccompanied children had been sent back to Haiti.
The detention of children and the separation of families has a much longer history than even this relatively recent episode suggests. The Trump administration’s shameful treatment of migrant children today is not, in fact, un-American but, sadly, part of a long American tradition. However, a more honorable tradition also endures, and that is the determination of migrants and their allies to fight for freedom. The Haitian children of Guantanamo built on that legacy. And so do all of those fighting for migrant children and families today.