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There and Back Again: Haitian Children in Detention Camps

August 5, 2018

At the U.S.-Mexico border, 23,000 children have been torn from their parents. The imagery is jarring. In a facility in McAllen, Texas, immigrants sit in cages like criminals, with one holding as many as 20 children. Young children cry for missing parents, but staff members are barred from physically comforting them.

By Sanha Lim

NCHR Timeline

Child psychologists have denounced family separation, citing its traumatic impact on a child’s early development.

According to the Washington Post, “the children, who had been separated from their parents in their first two years of life, scored significantly lower on IQ tests later in life. Their fight-or-flight response system appeared permanently broken. Stressful situations that would usually prompt physiological responses in other people — increased heart rate, sweaty palms — would provoke nothing in the children.”

This kind of practice, however, is nothing new for the U.S. government. Twenty years ago, refugee children coming from Haiti were similarly detained and mistreated at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

In a dusty tent camp at Guantánamo, 15-year-old Olgine waited to enter the United States. Not long before, the brutal murder of her father had forced her to flee Haiti. But instead of entering the U.S., Olgine had been redirected to the military compound in Guantánamo.

The land was arid, with portable toilets and flapping laundry dotting the compound. Coils of barbed wire circled the area. There were maggots in the food, and Haitians were often cuffed and sent into solitary confinement for petty offenses. Olgine herself had done 24 hours in solitary confinement for arguing with a girl, and her cousin had been taken away for participating in a hunger strike. She cried that day. Olgine hoped to join her mother, who lived in Florida. Her mother had sent for her, promising to take full care of her child, but Olgine remained in Guantánamo.

“I’m scared. I want my mother. She is waiting for me,” said Olgine. Still, even Guantánamo was better than returning to Haiti, where only death beckoned. On March 1995, Olgine was repatriated to Haiti.

On September 29, 1991, a squadron of soldiers opened fire at daybreak, puncturing the air above Haiti's National Palace. Raoul Cedras, a military leader, had staged a coup d’état that quickly captured President Aristide and forced him into exile.

In Guantánamo, negligence and abuse ran side by side. There was no electricity or sewer system and very few recreational or educational activities. Showers afforded no privacy, and desperate children bathed in portable toilets.

Under Cedras’s military dictatorship, a long shadow would hang over the Haitian people. Members of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), a macoute-esque paramilitary group, swaggered in the streets of Haiti, beating and killing with impunity. Local gangs ambushed homes and murdered any Aristide supporters they could find.

From 1991 to 1994, tens of thousands of Haitians piled into rickety boats, braving the choppy Atlantic seas to escape terror and oppression. In the United States, they would seek refuge, political asylum, and peace of mind. Instead of taking them in, however, President H.W. Bush diverted the refugees to Guantánamo Bay, and later began sending them back to Haiti. In his presidential bid, Bill Clinton promised to end this policy, but he reneged on his campaign promise once elected. He instead designated Guantánamo as a “safe haven” for Haitians awaiting screening for asylum.

Of the Haitians detained in Guantánamo, around 300 were unaccompanied children between the ages of eleven and seventeen. In 1995, The Florida Rural Legal Services prepared a report titled, “Not In Their Best Interest: A Report on the US Government's Forcible Repatriation of Guantánamo's Unaccompanied Haitian Children.” It served as a striking indictment of the way the United States dealt with unaccompanied child refugees, historically the most vulnerable refugee group. Not only were children kept in horrid conditions in the tent camps, but 60 had been sent back to Haiti by the end of April. More would be sent back in subsequent months.

In Guantánamo, negligence and abuse ran side by side. There was no electricity or sewer system and very few recreational or educational activities. Showers afforded no privacy, and desperate children bathed in portable toilets. Medical care, whether for physical or mental ailments, was spotty, unreliable, and at times nonexistent. A 17-year-old Haitian girl suffering from pains in the chest underwent an operation in the camp that only worsened her condition. She later required surgery in the United States, and her father, a legal resident, was ready to take care of her. Yet she remained in the camp for nine more months. Unwanted pregnancies, attempted suicides, and unstable conditions from severe trauma were all common.

One of the more shocking stories of the camp is a story of a 16-year-girl who was told by a U.S. soldier that he loved her and would help her get out. After impregnating her, the soldier disappeared. “I’m sad now because I’m pregnant, and alone. I realize now that he did not really love me.” The archives reveal tragedies of every color, such as children attempting suicide by drinking bleach, and children protesting their situation with hunger strikes, only to be beaten and shackled for their disobedience.

For the most part, the United States insisted that it was doing the right thing. On March 1995, the secretary for the Attorney General, Seth Waxman, wrote, “It is emphatically not the policy of the United States to retain these children indefinitely…it is our intention to see that each minor is placed in an environment that is consistent with their best interests.” According to Waxman, the United States would act according to UNHCR’s recommendation, looking for “reunification with parents or relatives in Haiti.”

Returning to Haiti was not in the children’s best interest. Each child fled Haiti with their own traumas, and all left because they feared significant physical harm and danger from political persecution.

According to one boy, his father, an ardent Aristide supporter, had been threatened by the military. “The military made him take down the posters and eat them. After other threats, my father went into hiding.” Another child had fled Haiti after his father had been shot and his mother beaten to death. “Our home was used as a voting bureau during the 1990 elections,” he said, “and so after the coup, in 1992, the military came to our home and shot my father...Right after that, my mother and I went into hiding, but we went to two different places. The military found my mother and beat her so bad that a few days later she died in the hospital.”

Due to brutality and violence, most of the children had no one to take care of them in Haiti. Those who did have relatives stayed with them, but most relatives were unwilling or unable to provide food, housing, and education. Some relatives took children in for the 40 Haitian dollars that the children carried but kicked them out once the stipend was spent. Abuse, both verbal and physical, was commonplace. Some were sent to cities far from their homes, where they knew no one. Those children slept in the streets or lived with strangers would had taken them in out of kindness.

Despite U.S. claims that, “in cases in which one or more responsible parents have been located in the US, the Attorney General has paroled the children into the United States,” even children like Olgine, whose parents lived in the United States, were returned to Haiti. Officials would claim to have located parents in Haiti, despite repeated insistence to the contrary. Many Haitians were illiterate and could not verify the content of the letters written on their behalf by the Red Cross.

In addition, although Aristide was returned to power by U.S. troops in 1994, the situation was dire. The U.S. government insisted that, because democracy had returned to Haiti, there should be no further fear of political persecution. But at local levels, especially in rural areas, violence still plagued many Haitians. According to the International Liaison Office for President Aristide, “Zengledo [heavily armed and well-organized thugs who often worked with paramilitary attachés] are killing, raping, and robbing people in residences, businesses, city streets, and remote sections of rural roads. The attacks occur in broad daylight as well as in the dead of night.”

Despite these conditions, then, why were Haitian children refugees repatriated back to Haiti?

Alongside the Haitian migration, a mass exodus of Cuban rafters fled Castro’s regime in 1994. Due to a reversal in long-standing U.S. policy to allow free Cuban migration, many were detained in the United States. The situation, however, met with backlash, and the United States began paroling Cubans in. Almost all were granted humanitarian parole, and later asylum.

So what was the difference between Haitian and Cuban migrants? The reasons are complex, including the enormous base of support Cubans had in the United States from decades of Cuban immigration, and the U.S. government’s desire to undermine the Castro regime.

But, more than anything, Haitians have long been labeled as something other, something lesser, shaped by their Blackness, economic status, culture, immigrant identity, and heritage as the first successful slave revolt and Black republic. This otherness permeates the letters and documents of the era. It is visible in the way Waxman assumes a Haitian girl is lying about her mother and the way officials fudge information, including names and events. It is visible in reports that point to misconduct and fighting by Haitians as the reason for their excessive punishment by soldiers. It is visible in the way Haiti is constantly referred to as the poorest country in the Western world.

Human rights organizations in the United States, for their part, tirelessly advocated for these Haitian children. Due to a large push from the Guantánamo Watch, the Congressional Black Caucus, Congress members, concerned celebrities like Robert DeNiro, and the advocacy of Cheryl Little, five repatriated Haitian children and more than a hundred children from Guantánamo were paroled into the United States. Organizations like Amnesty International and the NCHR joined the fight, holding press conferences, writing letters, and compiling reports.

On June 20, 2018, Trump issued an executive order immediately stopping the separation of families. The immense amount of public pressure from media stations, Congress, and social media made a difference, just as it had 20 years ago. We cannot, however, pat ourselves on the back. In doing so, we risk viewing the situation as an isolated reality and, more dangerously, as a Trump problem that his administration has now resolved. As the archives show, the United States has a long history of mistreating immigrants, dehumanizing them, and letting them suffer. The families that were separated still remain separated, and undocumented children in the United States live in fear that ICE could rip them away from their homes at any moment.

In 1996, despite the parole of five repatriated Haitian children, Olgine remained in Haiti. A Haitian women, Gerda, had taken her in but could not provide more than housing. Her aunt, who U.S. officials claimed was her mother, stated that “she had nothing to give her” and abandoned her. Despite the situation, Olgine was optimistic that she would see her mother again. She and her mother recently started the process of taking blood tests in order to confirm their relation. For now, she remains in Haiti, hungry but hopeful.

In a vulnerable and heartfelt letter to President Bill Clinton, the children of Guantánamo wrote, “Are we not children too? Please don’t let us suffer.... We would like to become doctors, engineers, lawyers. We are good children. Please, save the lives of us children in Guantánamo.” Their entreaties are not unique to Haitian children. Their cry is the cry of the weak and the broken around the world.


Banner photo credit: Photos – Children in Haiti, Box 156, National Coalition for Haitian Rights Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Affidavits of Haitian unaccompanied minors in Camp 9 by Cheryl Little, 1995 Guantánamo - US Policy towards Haitian Unaccompanied Minors at Guantánamo, 1995, Box 100, The National Coalition for Haitian Rights Records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Haberman, Maggie, and Michael. “Trump Retreats on Separating Families, Signing Executive Order After Outcry.” The New York Times, 20 June 2018.

Not In Their Best Interest: A Report on the US Government's Forcible Repatriation of n Guantánamo's Unaccompanied Haitian Children, May 1995, Miscellaneous publications on Haitian sea migration, 1995-2003, Box 5, Caribbean Sea Migration Records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Letter from Waxman to Cheryl Little, March 7, 1995 Guantánamo - US Policy towards Haitian Unaccompanied Minors at Guantánamo, 1995, Box 100, The National Coalition for Haitian Rights Records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Letter to Waxman from Cheryl Little June 15, 1995, LETTERs - Waxman packet (July 1995), Americans for Immigrant Justice Record, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Stories of Trauma, Mildred Aristide Packet, Box 2, Americans for Immigrant Justice Record, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Wan, William. “What Separation from Parents Does to Children: 'The Effect Is Catastrophic'.” The Washington Post, 18 June 2018.

The 2018 Story + team Remapping the Caribbean: Archives of Haitian & Cuban Migration, Detention & Legal Activism partnered with the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute @ Duke University to explore the archival collection of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. The group consisted of Professor Laurent Dubois, Duke History PhD student Ayanna Legros, and three undergraduates: Aasha Henderson, Sanha Lim, and Alyssa Perez. Through an analysis of photography, archival documents, first-person testimonies, and organization documents, we sought to understand the genealogy of immigration to the United States in the context of Cuban migration from the 1970s to the 2000s. We focused on human rights abuses of Haitians within the island and in the diaspora to understand the particular challenges Haitians have faced while crossing borders to escape political, economic, and social unrest in Haiti. As part of the Story+ project, the team created a Wikipedia entry, wrote blog posts, and conducted interviews with original board members of the organizations, with the goal of elevating the experiences of Caribbean peoples by showcasing how important first-person accounts and testimonies are in battles for human rights.

Sanha LimSANHA LIM is student from Chicago currently studying computer science and journalism at Duke University (T'21). His passion is in telling stories, and he loves discovering something special in the mundane. In his spare time, he fences, browses interesting articles, and learns as much as he can. He was a part of the 2018 Story+ team at Duke.