In the 1990s, William Barr, President Trump’s pick for attorney general, oversaw a program that sent some 12,000 Haitian asylum seekers to Guantanamo Bay, effectively creating what one detractor called “the world’s first HIV detention camp.” After operating for about 18 months, the detention system was forcibly ended by a judge in 1993, but Barr defended the practice as recently as 2001.
At the time, Barr was serving as attorney general for President George H.W. Bush, and a military coup in Haiti had led to mass executions that targeted thousands of supporters of the overthrown leader. The bloodshed sent thousands of Haitians fleeing to Florida to seek asylum.
But soon the United States Coast Guard began intercepting the boats at sea and conducting preliminary screenings of the refugees on board. Those who didn’t make it past the initial interview were immediately sent back to Haiti. When that practice was challenged in court, the Coast Guard quickly ran out of room to house the would-be migrants aboard ships. Federal immigration officials, wanting to avoid an influx of thousands of Haitian refugees in the U.S., instituted a policy of shuttling them to the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, rather than the States.
A return to Haiti was a near certain death sentence for many of those who fled, said Ira Kurzban, an attorney and refugees’ advocate who in 1991 fought against the program. The Haitian military would regularly patrol neighborhoods on the island, “literally pulling people out their homes to execute them in the streets,” Kurzban said in a telephone interview with CBS News on Friday.
Those who made it to Guantanamo would go through a “credible fear” interview to determine whether they had a strong asylum case. Those who passed were eligible to enter the United States and begin asylum proceedings.
But Haiti was also going through an AIDS crisis and some refugees were HIV-positive. Those who tested HIV-positive were forced to undergo a second interview at Guantanamo Bay and questioned again, facing a higher standard for proving their eligibility for asylum, according to a law paper published by Michael Ratner, the attorney who successfully fought against the HIV screening. Ratner died in 2016. The paper, titled “How We Closed the Guantanamo HIV Camp: The Intersection of Politics and Litigation,” was released by the Harvard Human Rights Journal in 1998.
In Ratner’s brief, he wrote that a “high-level attorney in the Bush administration told us that Attorney General Barr believed that everyone who was HIV-positive should be returned to Haiti.” Continue reading