My first trip to the GEO Group’s Adelanto Detention Center, the privately-run prison facility located deep inland in Southern California’s San Bernardino County, was to meet with a Haitian asylum seeker, Mr. Clement. Mr. Clement had entered the U.S. from Mexico and had been in detention for nine months. Earlier that summer, he participated in a hunger strike that brought together Central American and Haitian asylum seekers demanding better treatment in Adelanto. It was through this strike that he and some of the other detained Haitian men had garnered some attention. And through a series of legal and activist connections—connections stretching from local immigration rights organizers through Florida, Haiti, and back to Los Angeles—I heard of Mr. Clement and faced, for the first time, the travesty of detention for Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers in Southern California.
Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers are a growing population within detention centers all over the U.S. Southwest. Numbers vary, but there are estimates of thousands of noncriminal Haitians incarcerated, with the largest population in Otay Mesa, Arizona. Haitian migration to these parts is relatively new, beginning with a trickle arriving early 2016 to thousands today. (Mr. Clement said that there were about thirty to fifty other Haitian men, as well as a small number of Africans, detained in his jail block. He was not sure of the numbers held in other blocks, or of how many Haitian women are being held in the women’s wing of Adelanto.) This migration is also unusual. It reflects a new pattern for Haitian migrants, who originally traveled the direct route over the Caribbean Sea to the eastern U.S., and settled in metropolitan centers such as Miami and New York, cities with large Caribbean and African immigrant populations. This new pattern of migration means a more than 7,000-mile trek over land from Brazil through South and Central America, into Mexico and, finally, crossing one of the borders into the U.S. Southwest.
Mr. Clement’s journey to the U.S. was not an easy one. But his story is similar to that of other Haitian migrants in Southern California. He left Haiti for the Dominican Republic and later traveled to Brazil. He was in Brazil for eight months, working odd jobs, barely surviving. Life in Brazil was precarious for Mr. Clement as it was for other Haitian men and women. Brazil, already known for its long history of anti-Black racism, was almost unbearable for Haitians, who are perceived as “too” Black, and often suffered racist violence. Many Haitians have decided to leave Brazil, risking their lives to make the treacherous trek to the United States where they have family. Similarly, from Brazil, Mr. Clement traveled by land through Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. The journey took more than three months, interrupted by arrests (for example, Nicaraguan officials arrested Haitians on site and jailed them for days) and a lack of funds. Occasionally, Haitian migrants would claim to be from an African country in order not to be harassed by officials in some Central American states. Mr. Clement spoke of the difficulty of the journey through Central America including having friends and fellow travelers die in the Columbian forests, drowning as they crossed rivers, or being robbed by local bandits. He said Honduras provided something of a reprieve—a small community in Choluteca became one of the first groups to treat the Haitian travelers as family. Tijuana was the only other place in his travels where Mr. Clement felt he was treated with kindness.
He said Honduras provided something of a reprieve—a small community in Choluteca became one of the first groups to treat the Haitian travelers as family. Tijuana was the only other place in his travels where Mr. Clement felt he was treated with kindness.
Mr. Clement spent more than a month in Tijuana, waiting for an appointment date from the Mexican government to cross the border into the U.S. When Mr. Clement finally approached the San Ysidro border crossing he was immediately arrested. He was surprised to find that his initial immigration interview was conducted by a Haitian-American border patrol officer—in Haitian Creole (kreyòl ayisyen). The officer was intimidating, Mr. Clement said. He repeatedly accused Mr. Clement of being a Haitian gang member who was running away from rivals, a claim Mr. Clement denied. After Mr. Clement was processed he was sent to a small holding cell. The cell was not meant for more than three or four people but was packed with at least thirty individuals. The holding cell had no window or bed. Most people slept sitting up while some slept on mats. The prisoners could not shower or brush their teeth. They didn’t know how long migrants were held there, but Mr. Clement believed that it was around five days. (Other Haitian migrants confirmed these facts.) After those five days, they were moved to actual jail cells in another prison—in San Diego (whose name he and the others do not know). After three days there, the migrants and asylum seekers were put in prison jumpsuits, shackled with chains at the waist, wrists, and ankles, and placed on a bus for the more than six-hour drive to the Adelanto Detention Center.
Mr. Clement and his colleagues discussed their treatment in the U.S.—from border guards to prison guards—as condescending and inhumane and they all stated that they were not expecting to be treated like criminals the moment they crossed the border. They described the humiliation of not being able to use the toilet on the long bus trip to Adelanto. Some people urinated on themselves while others asked their fellow prisoners to unzip their pants to remove their penises so they could urinate where they sat.
The men described their months-long stay at Adelanto as torture. The men recounted being kept indoors most of the time, and allowed outdoors once a week but only for a very short period. They were not allowed to sleep more than a few hours at a time. For example, when guards ordered the inmates into their small rooms at 11 p.m., they had to wake up at 1 a.m. for a “head count.” After ordering everyone back to their rooms, the guards woke them up again at 4 or 5 a.m. for breakfast. The lights in the cells were never turned off—which, according to one former Haitian detainee, affected those on the top bunks even more—and the detention center was always freezing cold. In addition, some of the Haitians complained of guards using racial slurs against them, calling them “fucking blacks” and “Haitian trash.”
At Adelanto, Haitians have had larger bond amounts (ranging anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000) placed on them to secure their release than immigrant prisoners elsewhere in the U.S. And until recently, very few Haitians have been able to bond out of Adelanto and few have won their asylum cases. A colleague who currently conducts research at Adelanto suggested that the denial rate for Haitian asylum cases there was almost 100%. At the same time, despite the denial rates, the asylum seekers are forced to serve extended periods in detention before their deportation. Mr. Clement spoke of Adelanto as “sucking us dry.”
I know that this prison is private business, and that this body [he gestures to his chest] is worth $140 per day for Adelanto. So they hold us for as long as they can. They give us high bonds that we cannot pay. They change our asylum hearing dates. They even force those who do not want asylum to claim asylum so they can keep them longer. When they cannot make more money out of us, then they deport us quickly.
Indeed, reporter Kate Morrissey argued that as of November 2016, “detaining Haitians… in immigration holding facilities is costing American taxpayers an estimated $379,380 per day.” That number is greater now. Mr. Clement and some of his friends describe a number of African immigrants and asylum seekers who, having been detained for months without hope, attempted suicide.
Compared to those coming from Central America and Mexico, the detention of Haitian migrants and asylum seekers in the U.S. Southwest is relatively recent. When Haitian migrants first began in appear at the U.S.-Mexico border in small groups in early 2016, they were allowed into the U.S. through what is called a “humanitarian parole,” given a three-year temporary pass and released to family members. However, by late September 2016, and as the numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers increased exponentially, the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security put new arrivals in “expedited removal proceedings,” which means that they could be—and were—detained in prisons, especially if they have asylum claims.
How did so many Haitian people end up at the U.S.-Mexico border and, ultimately, at the Adelanto Detention Center and other facilities throughout the U.S. Southwest? In the increasing coverage given to this recent wave of Haitian migrants, the story seems simple: Haitians traveled to Brazil under humanitarian visas after the 2010 earthquake, and later were recruited to Brazil as a cheap labor source while the country prepared to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Since then, Brazil has been beset by severe economic retrenchment, forcing many Haitians to leave for the U.S.
Yet there is much more to this. Migrants leave Haiti for economic reasons, but also because of gang-related persecution, political instability, domestic abuse, and extreme homophobia. The country has also suffered from a long history of foreign military interventions, including ten interventions by the U.S. since the end of the nineteenth century. The U.S. also occupied Haiti twice in the twentieth century, the longest being the nineteen-year military occupation from 1915-1934. Most recently, Haiti has been under a militarized foreign occupation since February 2004, when the U.S., Canada, and France sponsored a coup d’état to oust its popularly elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide. The coup d’état led to a short military occupation by U.S. forces, which was later sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council when they approved a “peacekeeping” mission in Haiti. The military wing of the mission was headed by Brazil for more than a decade. The occupation of Haiti has also added to the country’s political instability, undermining Haitian democracy and self-determination and challenging sovereignty. It has also led to massive suffering: Fall 2010, not long after the earthquake January of that year that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Nepalese troops brought cholera to Haiti. It induced an epidemic that has sickened more than a million Haitians and killed between 10,000 and 30,000. Accountability has not been forthcoming. The UN has refused to admit its culpability and the Haitian people have had no avenue for redress.
When we met, Mr. Clement was preparing to present his asylum claim before a U.S. immigration court housed not far from the ICE offices within the Adelanto facility. Immigration proceedings in detention centers are considered “administrative” matters and are less formal than regular court proceedings. The usual rules of evidence do not apply and the presiding judges have substantial leeway in their interpretation of testimony and the assessment of asylum claims. Meanwhile, as U.S. immigration policy dictates, he can only receive legal representation at his own expense; Mr. Clement was forced to represent himself.
Yet despite such terrible circumstances, Mr. Clement is one of the fortunate ones. With the help of a bond fund established for the Adelanto hunger strikers by a local organization, volunteers were able to bond him out of the detention center just before his deportation hearing. A regular immigration judge on the outside—rather than within Adelanto—will now hear his asylum case, and Mr. Clement will now have a more normal set of legal set of proceedings. At the same time, he is stuck within the U.S. criminal justice system. He was bonded out on a $17,000 bond with two ankle bracelets (shackles produced by a subsidiary of the GEO Group)—one for ICE, and one for the bond company. The bond company that collateralized his release requires former detainees to pay a $480 “activation fee” for the ankle monitor, and $420 per month service fee for as long as it takes for his case to be resolved. Yet, as an asylum seeker awaiting trial, Mr. Clement is not allowed to seek employment to cover this non-refundable fee, the ankle monitor fee, or his day-to-day living expenses.
Mr. Clement may be out of detention, but he is certainly not free.
- With gratitude to Peter James Hudson for his brilliant and generous feedback.
 All names of asylum seekers are pseudonyms.
 “Haitian Immigrants Victims of Xenophobic Attacks in Brazil,” TeleSur, 9 August 2015, https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Haitian-Immigrants-Victims-of-Xenophobic-Attacks-in-Brazil-20150809-0002.html; “‘It’s not because I’m black, is it?’—As Haitian immigrants head to the south of Brazil, racist tendencies arise as descendants of European immigrants turn their noses up,” Black Women of Brazil, 29 May 2015, https://blackwomenofbrazil.co/2015/05/29/its-not-because-im-black-is-it-as-haitian-immigrants-head-to-the-south-of-brazil-racist-tendencies-arise-as-descendants-of-european-immigrants-turn-their-noses-up/.
 Although, with pressure from the United States, Honduras has begun arresting Haitian migrants traveling through the country (http://www.hougansydney.com/whats-happening-in-haiti/more-than-100-haitian-migrants-arrested-in-honduras).
 It turns out that the Mexican government does not allow all who want to cross the border to the U.S. Instead, it passes out appointment dates to cross. Most of these dates require the Haitian (and other migrants) to spend at least two weeks in Baja California.
 Kate Morrissey, “ Detaining Haitians awaiting deportation to hurricane-ravaged homeland is not inexpensive,” San Diego Union Tribune, 11 November 2016, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/immigration/sd-me-haitian-cost-20161111-story.html.
 Of course, the U.S. has a long history of detaining Haitian asylum seekers and migrants. Two of the more notorious detention centers are Krome Detention Center (http://thepublicarchive.com/?p=3362) and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay (http://gitmomemory.org/timeline/haitians-and-gtmo/) before it gained more notoriety as a maximum-security prison for purported suspects of the U.S. “War on Terror.” Both of these detention centers have reputations for the cruel treatment of Haitian immigrants.
 Daniel González, “Migrants amassed at U.S.-Mexico border unsure what’s next,” azcentral,13 December 2016, http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/border-issues/2016/12/13/thousands-haitian-migrants-amassed-us-mexico-border-unsure-whats-next/94688238/.
 There are also new impediments to social life, including the recent Haitian government’s new anti-LGBT posture (http://www.haitilibre.com/en/news-21838-haiti-politics-what-say-the-law-on-reputation-and-good-life-and-morals.html).
 Jemima Pierre, “Haiti: The Second Occupation,” The Black Scholar, 14 August 2015, http://www.theblackscholar.org/haiti-the-second-occupation/; Anthony Fenton and Dru Oja Jay, “Ottawa’s “Secret Memo”: Canada’s Role in Haiti’s February 2004 Coup d’Etat,” Global Research, 26 February 2013, https://www.globalresearch.ca/declassifying-canada-in-haiti-canadian-officials-planned-military-intervention-weeks-before-haitian-coup/2225; “When Canada plotted to overthrow Haiti’s government,” 24 January 2014, https://yvesengler.com/tag/ottawa-initiative/.
 According to Dady Chery, Haiti’s UN mission is the only UN Chapter 7 force in a country that is not at war. Chapter 7 of the UN Charter gives the UN Security Council the power to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace” and take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security.” Participating countries have boasted about Haiti being a place where they could test their police methods and military equipment for urban warfare on an unsuspecting population” (“10 Reasons Why UN Occupation of Haiti Must End,” Haïti Liberté, 19 April 2017, https://haitiliberte.com/10-reasons-why-un-occupation-of-haiti-must-end/).
 Jemima Pierre, “Brazil’s Haitian Training Ground,” Black Agenda Report, 4 May 2011, https://blackagendareport.com/content/brazil’s-haitian-training-ground.
 Gina Athena Ulysse, “30 Thousand Haitian Lives Lost to U.N. Cholera,” HuffPost, 6 June 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-athena-ulysse/30-thousand-haitian-lives_b_10299692.html.
Jemima Pierre is Associate Professor jointly appointed in the Departments of African American Studies and of Anthropology at UCLA. She is the author of The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race (Chicago). Her research focuses on race, political economy, transnationalism, and the politics of knowledge production.
Copyright: © 2017 Jemima Pierre. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/