Daniela Sheinin: How do past voices resonate in the present moment? And how do we make sense of those voices? What were they trying to say and whose job is it to find out? This is Reverb Effect.
Archival Audio (PBS NewsHour): …leaving the White House today for a rally in El Paso, Texas, President Trump weighed in on the prospect of a second shutdown just weeks after the longest in US history ended. At issue, how many should be detained by US Immigration & Customs Enforcement Agents…
Archival Audio (NPR Morning Edition): …or the agency known as ICE is reportedly holding more than 50,000 migrants. That is a record high number. And now the administration is asking for more funding…
Archival Audio (Kevin McAleenan): …and we’ve requested more funding for it. Without that funding we have an impossible choice…We either lose control of our border entirely…Or we’re gonna have to release people that were picked up in the interior, with criminal records…
Archival Audio (PBS NewsHour): …According to a new investigation by USA Today, 24 centers and 17,000 new beds have been added in the last 3 years…The team at USA Today documented poor conditions, over 400 cases of sexual assault or abuse, and at least 29 deaths…
Daniela Sheinin: This is a story about agencies like the Immigration and Naturalization Service and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. You might know them as the INS or ICE. It’s also the story of the thousands of detained migrants from Cuba and Central America confined in detention centers at US borders every year.
There seems to be nothing civil about the “civil detainment” in which almost half a million people in 2019 found themselves. The present-day process of locking up people who arrive at US borders has a 40-year history, which has quickly developed into a nation-wide system for the confinement of non-citizens. For how much longer can we call these facilities detention centers, when they look more and more like prisons every day?
Welcome to Episode 5 of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I’m your host, Daniela Sheinin.
In this episode you’ll hear from two PhD candidates in history, Alexander Stephens studies migration, race, empire, and policing and incarceration in the United States and Caribbean. His dissertation follows the stories of Cubans who migrated to the United States in the 1980 Mariel Boatlift and traces their encounters with police, prisons, and legal institutions.
Gerson Rosales is working on a dissertation on the transnational history of Salvadoran migration during the 1970s and 1980s. Gerson’s experiences as the son of Salvadoran migrants inform his research interests in race, migration, immigration law, community formation, and diasporic cultural forms.
Given their shared interests, Gerson and Alexander sat down to discuss the historic connections between migration to the United States and incarceration. To their surprise, their research took them from Cuba and Central America, to a small town in Louisiana, and beyond.
Alexander Stephens: It’s possible that you’ve never heard of Oakdale, Louisiana. It’s a small town in the center of the state with a population of about 8,000. Oakdale has a plywood plant and a major factory that produces a type of fabricated wood used in housing construction. But Oakdale does more than manufacture timber products. It’s home to a prison built specifically for the long-term confinement of migrants to the United States. It’s not the only one. it’s part of what is now a massive detention system.
But within that system, it was the first. During the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of people from Central America and the Caribbean were arriving at US borders.
Archival Audio (WTVJ Miami, April 25, 1980): At about 3:30 in the afternoon, a boatload of Cuban refugees arrived at the old Navy base in Key West. The Chief had more than 80 people on board, most of them from the Peruvian Embassy in Havana.
Alexander Stephens: The government responded by applying an old strategy to a new situation—mass detention.
Officials in both the Carter and Reagan administrations sought to limit and then deter new arrivals by locking up large numbers of people.
But when the decade began, there were few places designated for the long-term detention of non-citizens. By the middle of the 1980s, things were different.
Gerson Rosales: “February 10th, 1986 Oakdale Louisiana is a site of a new INS detention facility, which is scheduled to open on March 24th, 1986. Located in an isolated rural town, the center is a four-hour drive from New Orleans and approximately the same distance from Houston. Not serviced by any form of public transportation, a good portion of the drive to Oakdale is a two-lane road.”
This is the first paragraph of a memo from the ACLU, and the rest of this memo details the creation of the Oakdale detention facility, which increased the capacity of detention. So the main facility had a thousand beds and it could be expanded to house an additional 5,000 people in tents really on the adjacent property.
Alexander Stephens: In any system of confinement and incarceration, capacity matters. Oakdale represented a shift toward the construction of a vast, permanent infrastructure for locking up migrants in the United States. The research that Gerson and I are doing converges in Oakdale—a town of fewer than 7,000 people at the time.
We’re building on work by other scholars, especially two recent books—Boats, Borders, and Bases by Jenna Lloyd & Alison Mountz and Detain & Punish by Carl Lindskoog. Like them, we’ve followed archival trails to learn about Oakdale.
And about how it became home to a detention center that was a forerunner in what is today the largest system of immigrant prisons in the world.
Gerson Rosales: In a way we can see the echoes of the 1980s today.
Um, you know, in the 1980s this idea of detaining and incarcerating asylum claimants really takes off. And, and today, like that’s like the policy, right? Like that’s, that’s what you do to people who ask for asylum, is you throw them in detention centers.
Archival Audio (News Anchor): Attorney general Jeff sessions signaled a crackdown on illegal immigration during his visit to the us Mexico border Tuesday sessions called on the justice department to make immigration enforcement a top priority. And he warned people who break the nation’s immigration laws. They will be prosecuted.
Archival Audio (Jeff Sessions): We will secure this border and bring the full weight of both the immigration courts and the federal enforcement and prosecutors to combat this attack on our national security and our sovereignty.
Alexander Stephens: In the 1970s, the idea that the US had lost control of its borders was starting to gain traction. But it became a more prominent part of the national conversation after the arrival of Haitians and Cubans in the 1980s. You could hear it in the language of Reagan’s attorney general, French Smith, as early as 1981:
Archival Audio (French Smith): We have lost control of not only the number, but also the type of person who enters the country. Neither Florida, nor any other state or region should bear an avoidably disproportionate burden in dealing with either immigrants or refugees.
Alexander Stephens: The shift in language was accompanied by a change in the policies around locking up migrants under the Reagan administration. But the story didn’t begin with Reagan. In the first decades after World War II, the United States admitted groups as “refugees” when they were—or could be seen as—people opposed to socialist governments. Refugee policy was closely tied to Cold War US foreign policy—a way to show solidarity with imagined allies against the Soviet Union and portray the United States as a welcoming, capitalist alternative. But the US had caps on the number of people who could be admitted as refugees each year. So when groups left socialist countries en masse, admitting refugees required getting around those limits. The solution found in each case was to admit people provisionally—through what’s called “parole”—until Congress could pass legislation to move them from temporary to permanent status. In the 1980s, that changed.
Gerson Rosales: Oakdale detention center opens in April, 1986 and 46 people are transferred there from El Centro, which is a detention center in Calexico, California. And Oakdale was also built with eight courtrooms and offices for eight immigration judges and 16 INS trial attorneys and the warden expected 200 asylum hearings per day. So it was really almost like a factory of asylum denial where people were just, being forced into these really speedy hearings and being denied asylum. Salvadorans are denied asylum en masse.
Alexander Stephens: Oakdale was built at a pivotal time. The arrival of people from countries where the governments had US support meant that policymakers often had little interest in offering protection. The Carter and Reagan administrations started focusing on detaining groups arriving at US borders. People came from places like Haiti, El Salvador, and Guatemala as “asylum seekers”—a term for people hoping to qualify and be admitted as “refugees” under US law.
Gerson Rosales: Oakdale Detention Center is a really interesting moment in which both of our projects converge, which I was surprised and you were surprised as well usually because even though we’re both studying the 1980s, Central American and Cuban migrants and refugees are largely written about as completely separate and isolated from each other.
Alexander Stephens: The intention of Oakdale, which was the largest immigrant detention center in the country when it was built was to house mostly Central American migrants, and largely Salvadorans. But about six months later, it transitioned to be a site primarily used to house Cubans who had come in a mass migration, known as the Mariel boatlift in 1980 when about 125,000 people came on small boats. Some of them had spent time in Cuban prisons. And that became the sort of dominant idea about who these people were. It was that Fidel Castro had emptied his prisons, um, and forced people onto boats bound for the United States. In fact, it was a relatively small percentage of people who came, but there were people who had had that experience. You know, it ends up in the US being sensationalized in the movie Scarface in 1983 and so you’ve got Al Pacino playing, this sort of crazed, coked out, “Mariel Cuban” or “Mariel refugee,” as they were often called at the time.
Gerson Rosales: You know what’s interesting is that it had been a long time since I had watched Scarface. And I completely forgot that that’s how the movie begins, that he’s part of the Mariel boatlift. And I’d also forgotten like how bad that movie is. It’s, it’s really not. It’s really not a great movie. And I know Tony Montana’s kind of a jerk.
Alexander Stephens: Right. But it ends up having this purchase on, I think, popular ideas about who these Cubans were. Um, and it’s in the context of this panic, right, when they arrive. And, um, and the state of Florida and the US government are not really sure how to deal with the situation.
Alexander Stephens: As Cubans started coming in the Mariel boatlift in 1980, the federal government began by releasing people who had close relatives in South Florida. Their family members served as their sponsors by promising to help find them housing and work. But for new arrivals without relatives in the Miami area, the Carter administration had a different plan and ultimately sent over 60,000 people to temporary detention camps on military bases. Over the next year, most of the people in the camps were released to sponsors throughout the country. While they waited, though, some Mariel Cubans protested their unanticipated confinement.
Archival Audio (Pryor Center): Cubans protesting at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, 1980.
Alexander Stephens: There were reports of some violence and crime in the camps, too. The bad publicity led to calls for more security around the camps, which became more and more like prisons.
In the meantime, the proportion of people of color locked inside grew. The boatlift was the first time since the Cuban Revolution that a large number of black and brown Cubans arrived in the United States. Many of the earlier migrants were white and from the middle- and upper-classes. So Cubans of color were less likely than white Cubans to have relatives already living in South Florida. And they were more likely to be sent to one of the camps. Once there, they often had a harder time finding sponsors than their white counterparts. Over the course of a year, as many people found sponsors and moved out, the percentage of black Cubans in the camps increased from about 50 percent to 95 percent.
Carol Whitlock, a white woman from Minnesota, struggled as she and her family considered whether or not to sponsor Alfredo, a black Cuban man who took part in the boatlift. Whitlock published candid diary excerpts about this process in the Miami Herald in 1980.
Lucy Smith (as Carol Whitlock): We have requested a Hispanic man because of the community acceptance problem. Maybe I secretly feel safer with a lighter-skinned man around. Alfredo communicates very nicely with us in English. He knew none when he arrived here three months ago. He is very educated. His folder states he is Catholic, just wants to live a Christian life. I tell him I am sorry about what happened, I hope he finds a nice sponsor. He leaves and I cry, because he is nice—and he is black.
Alexander Stephens: Whitlock and her family ultimately sponsored Alfredo. They helped him get on his feet and tried to help him navigate a very segregated white community. She admitted her own racial prejudice but decided to bring Alfredo into her home, something few white people agreed to do. Al Pacino may have played the stereotypical Cuban from Mariel in Scarface, but in real life, rumors about their “criminal pasts” were reinforced by racism. The deck was stacked against them before they even arrived.
Gerson Rosales: That speaks to the importance of recognizing that long before Cubans or Salvadorans arrived at the United States border, they had this long history of experiences that really shaped not only their arrival and perceptions, but also the responses to what happens to them once they’re in detention. While similar in some respects, the case of Salvadorans was different from Cubans because El Salvador was in the midst of a civil war. The armed conflict that erupted in 1980 had been building for decades. State-sponsored violence and repression radicalized some sectors of the Salvadoran Left. Eventually, an umbrella organization of armed guerilla groups, took up arms against the civilian-military junta. The US began sending funds to support the junta against its opposition from the Left.
Archival Audio (PBS NewsHour):
Reporter: In Potosí, only a few miles from government positions to the South, guerrillas turned up on market day to talk with villagers.
FMLN Member: Viva la … Viva el pueblo de Potosi! Viva la juventud valiente de Potosí!
Gerson Rosales: Twelve years later, according to the United Nations, at least 75,000 people had died as a result of the civil war in El Salvador. Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua were also involved in escalating conflicts in the 1980s. It’s estimated that nearly one million Central Americans left the region over the course of the decade. The civil war was a major catalyst for migrations from all sectors of society.In the first few years of the civil war, though, when repression was at its height, a lot of people with backgrounds in labor organizing and grassroots movements began fleeing the country for fear of government persecution.By the time Oakdale opened in 1986, you also saw the arrival of men who had deserted the Salvadoran armed forces. When they were detained, they were placed in the same spaces as people who had suffered atrocities at the hands of the military.
In a memoir about his time as a paralegal working with Salvadoran asylum seekers in US detention centers, Robert Kahn saw first-hand these divisions among the people detained in Oakdale.
Jonathan Quint (as Robert Kahn):As a deserter from both sides, Orlando tried to stay away from everyone inside Oakdale. But one night he heard Salvadoran veterans bragging about how many guerillas they had killed.
“You know what?” he told them. “Those weren’t guerillas you killed. They were farmers. And for every real guerilla you killed, the guerilla killed ten of you.” The veterans challenged him to a fight. They threatened to report his political opinions and his location to the army when they were deported.
Gerson Rosales: Khan’s account shows how conflicts in Central America sometimes played out again in the United States detention centers. The US government denied 97 percent of Salvadorans’ requests for asylum in the 1980s. That’s a stunning denial rate. The irony is that the United States bore a significant responsibility for how the civil war developed in El Salvador. The Reagan administration pumped millions and millions of dollars into arms and training for the Salvadoran military, which helped create the conditions that led people to flee in the first place.
Alexander Stephens: For a long time, the typical story that US historians told about immigration treated the year 1965 as a watershed. That’s because it’s when President Lyndon Johnson signed a series of major amendments to the nation’s immigration laws. It was seen as a civil rights victory because it did away with a number of racist and exclusionary policies, including the “National Origins Quotas” and a similar set of numerical caps that pretty much shut down immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, much of Asia, and almost all of Africa. So Johnson’s signature did, in some ways, mark a shift in 1965.
Archival Audio (Lyndon Johnson): For over four decades, the immigration policy of the United States had been twisted and has been distorted by the harsh injustice of the National Origins Quota system.
Alexander Stephens: More recently, though, historians have emphasized that the 1965 amendments actually imposed new restrictions on immigration from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. This had big implications for the 1970s and 1980s.
Gerson Rosales: Some of the people that are coming to the United States during this time, you know, Dominicans other Caribbean migrants, Central Americans, they don’t really fit into this, um, framework of 1965 because what the 1965 Act actually did is not necessarily this liberal opening of the United States immigration policy. What it actually does is it sets a numerical cap on visas for the Western hemisphere, it imposes the number of 120,000 visas for the Western hemisphere. This numerical cap did not exist prior to 1965.
Archival Audio (Lyndon Johnson): Today with my signature, this system is abolished. We can now believe that it will never again shatter the gate to the American nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.
Alexander Stephens: But Johnson was wrong. In US immigration policy, prejudice for some and privilege for others continued. Soon after the first Western Hemisphere quota was established, a per-country cap was imposed on migrants from Mexico and other Latin American nations. Congress came under pressure to increase funding for surveillance and policing along the Mexico-US border. And the changes effectively turned hundreds of thousands of people from “migrants” into “undocumented immigrants.” But there was an exception…for people classified as “refugees.”
Before 1980, the US typically used refugee policy to admit people seen as having fled so-called “communist countries.” But in most cases, the Department of State and the military had screened refugees in camps prior to their arrival in the United States. During the 1980s, a lot of people were pretty much showing up at the door.
Gerson Rosales: There’s a real anxiety when the United States becomes the first country of asylum. Um, you know, if we think about, you know, Hungarian refugees, we can think about Southeast Asian, Vietnamese, they really are screened before they arrive in the United States or at the United States is able to choose which kinds of refugees who wants to bring in. But that changes, right? With the arrival of Haitians, Cubans and central Americans who are coming to the United States as refugees, right? They’re arriving directly at the United States border asking for asylum, I mean, we can see it today, right? There’s this anxiety and this panic around people who are coming here, even though showing up at the U S border and asking for asylum is legal, right? You know, people talk about, immigrating to United States the right way or legally, which I think is ridiculous, but either way, but you know, if you follow that logic, arriving at the border and asking for asylum is a legal way to
Alexander Stephens: It’s the right way
Gerson Rosales: It’s the right way to enter into the United States.
Maybe it’s worth mentioning also that in 1980 the United States Refugee Act changes the definition of refugee, right. Whereas before 1980, the refugee system in the United States privileged those fleeing, um, communist controlled countries. In 1980, what the Refugee Act does is it brings United States refugee policy in line with the United Nations high commissioner for refugees’, definition of refugee. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that it was at liberalization of refugee policy.
Alexander Stephens: In theory, the Refugee Act of 1980 meant that refugee status would be granted to anyone who qualified under a clear legal definition. In practice, it was—and still is—political…and messy.
The Mariel boatlift began just weeks after the Refugee Act went into effect. All of a sudden there were questions about how to handle the arrival of Cubans…and whether they should still be considered “refugees” at all. Haitians were arriving in boats at exactly the same time. But in contrast with the Cubans who had arrived in recent decades, many Haitian asylum seekers were already being detained and denied protection. Haitians in South Florida and some African-American leaders argued that this distinction reflected a racist double-standard.
Archival Audio (WTVJ April 19, 1980):
Reporter: The plight of the Haitians is becoming known around the country. The Reverend Jesse Jackson was met today in Miami by cheers and cries of the exiles, who now look to the nation’s black leaders for help.
Jesse Jackson: Give me your tired! Haitians are tired! Give me your poor! Give me your huddled masses!
Alexander Stephens: In 1980, the Carter administration took some steps to resolve the discrepancy. But not necessarily in the way that immigrant communities hoped. A federal commission recommended increasing the government’s capacity to detain asylum seekers from any country, not just Haiti.
A nationwide search was overseen by none other than Rudy Giuliani—at the time, an Associate Attorney General. The process ultimately led to a place that should sound familiar by now: Oakdale, Louisiana. In 1986, the little town claimed the dubious honor of hosting the largest immigrant detention center in the country. The story of Oakdale offers a lesson about the importance of capacity in the history of the US immigrant prison system. Police agencies are limited in how they can enforce laws if they are limited in how many people they can physically detain. Capacity really matters. And Oakdale comes at a crucial moment in the early development of what is now the largest immigrant prison system in the world.
Most of the Mariel Cubans in Oakdale were transferred there after serving time in state prisons for criminal convictions in the United States. Most Salvadorans were locked in Oakdale while they awaited decisions in their asylum cases. But both groups were funneled into the beginning stages of a system that would grow for the next four decades. Many of the sites within that system are in small, rural towns like Oakdale.
Gerson Rosales: You know, we really see what’s happening today along the border. The denial, the mass denial of asylum to refugee seekers, largely Central Americans is in part a result of the, of the 1980s and sort of, you know, the, the legacies of this moment. People who are filing asylum claims, right? They’re being stopped at the border in Mexico or they’re going straight to detention centers. Like Oakdale.
And part of what really is driving this moment of panic is that people are able to come in undetected, right. Um, that they’re coming in out of the purview of the state.
Alexander Stephens: People come undetected because they’re forced to come undetected by restrictive immigration laws. Refugee law became an alternative route for people seeking to move across borders. It was a path carved by international cooperation in the wake of the massive disruption and displacement caused by World War II. But in the early-1980s, the US began building immigrant prisons to constrict that path. In the decades since, even as elected officials have debated what they call, comprehensive immigration reform, the mass detention of migrants has been accepted by most politicians as an indelible feature of US policy. And almost 40 years later, with more people displaced around the world than ever before, the US government is seeking to grow its system of immigrant prisons once again.
Daniela Sheinin: Thank you so much for joining us. And a special thank you to our segment producers for the episode, Alexander Stephens and Gerson Rosales. Another special thank you to contributors Lucy Smith and Jon Quint. Our Editorial Board is Professor Melanie Tanielian and Matt Villeneuve, and our Production Team is Executive Producer Gregory Parker, and I’m your Season Producer, Daniela Sheinin. I hope you’ll join us for our next episode for more stories on how the past reverberates in the present. This is Reverb Effect.
Archival Audio Citations
Clip 1: Shutdown & Detention Beds, 2019
PBS NewsHour, 2019-02-11
Clip 2: ICE Capacity Claims
NPR Morning Edition, 2019-05-24
Clip 3: Increase Detention Beds
PBS NewsHour, 2019-12-20
Clip 4: WTVJ Report on Arrival of Cubans in Miami, 1980
Wolfson Archives at Miami-Dade College, 1980-04-25 (Starts at ~18 minutes)
Clip 6: AG Jeff Sessions, 2017
Clip 7: WTVJ Report on AG French Smith, 1981
Wolfson Archives at Miami-Dade College, 1981-06-30
Clip 8: Protests at Ft. Chaffee, 1980
Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History
Clip 9: Dispatch from Salvadoran Civil War
KCTS9 Cascade Public Media
Clip 12: WTVJ Report on Protests for Haitians
Wolfson Archives at Miami-Dade College, 1980-04-19 (Starts at 34:42)