But then, as now, these inflammatory labels — along with complaints of overcrowding, mistreatment and even death — didn’t change Reagan’s controversial detention policy. Instead, this crisis and the administration’s extreme measures to resolve it produced an enduring change to immigration enforcement. Ultimately, the once-controversial idea of detention became a staple of our immigration system.
When Reagan took office in January 1981, he inherited what he and his administrators would call an immigration crisis. Between 1972 and 1980, more than 40,000 Haitians had migrated via boat to South Florida, fleeing political persecution and economic deprivation caused by the repressive regime of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
Then, between April and October 1980, more than 100,000 Cubans came to the United States from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor, also to escape increasing political repression. In the spring of 1980, Cuban President Fidel Castro had decided to allow departures, which were usually restricted, from the port of Mariel. Many dissident Cubans left immediately, and many Cuban Americans sent boats to Mariel to retrieve friends and family members. Most of these “Marielitos” remained in the United States, living with family members or, if that was not possible, in government-run detention camps.
Policymakers worried about an unending Caribbean refugee problem or, as one Reagan administrator called it, a “Haitian flood.” This sense of catastrophe reverberated in an anti-immigrant environment fueled by a combination of racism and economic instability. Haitians and Mariel Cubans were predominantly single, working-class black men. Although the migrants claimed asylum from political persecution, many Americans believed that they were seeking jobs or welfare benefits that rightfully belonged to American citizens.
Reports from media and government officials alike perpetuated the sense that Haitians and Cubans were unable to assimilate. In 1980, State Department officials blamed an uprising of detained Cubans in Fort Chaffee, Ark., on “some hardened criminals exported to the United States by Fidel Castro,” reflecting a popular misconception that most of the Marielitos had criminal backgrounds. In 1983, the Centers for Disease Control incorrectly identified Haitian migrants as a group that could “be considered at increased risk of AIDS.”
Reagan administration officials responded with harsh measures. Their solution? Detention of all arriving migrants, including asylum seekers. Immigration officials would only release a migrant after they found that they met the legal definition of a refugee, a process that could take years.
According to administration officials, the detention policy was necessary to deter future immigration. Speaking before Congress, the attorney general, William French Smith, stated that the country had “lost control of [its] borders” and would, without detention, “crumble under the burden of overwhelming numbers.”
The administration was aware that the policy would be controversial. It was careful to portray the policy as a strict enforcement of immigration laws that had existed for years. The attorney general pointed to a component of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) that said that arriving migrants without visas could be detained for further investigation. This provision had been on the books since 1952, but the Immigration Service had rarely detained migrants during this time. Instead, if immigration officials had questioned the validity of an arriving immigrant’s visa, they would release the migrant on parole or bond until the issue was resolved. In other words, the Reagan administration changed immigration policy, but portrayed its action as a return to congressional intent.
Reagan’s immigration task force, which was chaired by the attorney general and his deputy, Rudolph W. Giuliani, noted in a report that the detention policy “could create an appearance of ‘concentration camps’ filled largely by blacks.” Still, the task force pushed forward with this approach.
The detention policy began as an executive branch project. To enforce the detention mandate, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the predecessor to the current Department of Homeland Security, held migrants in a makeshift detention camp on Krome Avenue in Dade County, Fla. There, migrants slept under threadbare blankets and ate spoiled food. The former army barracks were infested with mosquitoes and snakes.
The state of Florida campaigned to close the unsanitary detention site while human rights lawyers challenged the legality of the detention policy. In June 1982, a federal judge in Miami found that the government had not announced the procedure in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires government agencies to give notice before changing policies. Judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit later held that the policy violated the Equal Protection Clause by discriminating against Haitians because of their race and nationality.
These legal victories were short-lived, though. In 1982, the government gave proper notice of the policy. In 1985, the Supreme Court reversed the 11th Circuit’s decision about discrimination. By that time, immigration authorities had transferred the detainees to federal prisons across the mainland United States, as well as to Fort Allen in Puerto Rico, creating what the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida called a “policy of Siberian exile.”
Although the policy began in the executive branch, it took congressional cooperation to expand it. The attorney general and the immigration agencies needed funding from Congress to pay for increased detention. Although there was resistance from some lawmakers, a majority complied. In 1985, Congress authorized funding for the construction of a permanent immigration detention facility, with a capacity to hold up to 6,000 people (1,000 inside and another 5,000 to be detained in “contingency space” outdoors, if necessary) in Oakdale, La.
Congress also helped entrench another innovation of Reagan’s administration: the use of private prison companies. The detention policy launched an administrative collaboration with private contractors that would reshape practices of incarceration for all federal detainees. While a few state and local governments began working with private prison contractors in the 1970s, the federal government began using private contractors in the early 1980s.
All of these early federal contracts involved immigrant detainees. Consider, for example, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The CCA’s first facility was a 300-bed immigration detention center in Houston, which opened in 1984. Now, the CCA — renamed as CoreCivic — is one of the country’s largest immigration detention companies.
Although members of Congress raised questions about empowering private companies that profited from detaining immigrants, a majority of lawmakers have continued to support the practice. In 2010, for example, Congress tied the Department of Homeland Security’s funding to satisfying the “immigration bed quota” — or, rather, detaining a minimum number of immigrants per day. Many of these members of Congress, scholars and advocates point out, receive money from lobbyists and PACs that are affiliated with private prison companies. Today, over 70 percent of detained immigrants are held in privately run prisons.
Reagan’s detention policy, supported by Congress, ultimately spurred a new form of immigration detention — geographically disparate, long-term and privatized — that would far outlive the immigration crisis itself. This tale is a cautionary one as we talk of the “crisis” at the border today. Actions taken to control a perceived crisis can have long-term effects. Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) are vocal opponents of Trump’s immigration policy. Will they be able to undo the decades-old immigration detention system that was born from Reagan’s immigration crisis? More importantly, can they prevent today’s crisis mentality from giving rise to a new one?