Sep 22, 2021
"This is an embarrassingly bad decision. Do better."
That's how U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) responded Wednesday to reporting that the Biden administration, already under fire this week for its immigration policies, "is seeking a private contractor to operate a migrant detention facility at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a requirement that some of the guards speak Spanish and Haitian Creole."
Though the White House, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not respond to requests for comment, the revelation from NBC News' Jacob Soboroff and Ken Dilanian sparked widespread condemnation.
"This cannot happen," tweeted Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer at the Texas-based rights group RAICES. She added a message directed at President Joe Biden: "Shame on you."
Andiola wasn't alone in taking aim at the president and other leaders in his administration.
The National Immigrant Justice Center called out Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. If NBC's reporting--which is backed up by public records--is true, "then you have lost your way," the group said.
BuzzFeed, in 2016, described the so-called Migrant Operations Center at the naval base as "a building reminiscent of a budget hotel on an isolated side of the base far from its commercial district and the military detention center."
DHS' posting says in part that the center "has a capacity of 120 people and will have an estimated daily population of 20 people, however the service provider shall be responsible to maintain on site the necessary equipment to erect temporary housing facilities for populations that exceed 120 and up to 400 migrants in a surge event."
The contract solicitation for the facility comes as President Joe Biden faces global criticism for his administration's response to thousands of Haitain migrants who gathered at a camp on the Texas-Mexico border in the context of its broader policies on asylum and deportation.
Soboroff and Dilanian noted that the records "provided no indication that the Biden administration is planning to transfer migrants from the southern border to Guantanamo Bay," which has been used by previous U.S. administrations to detain aslyum-seekers.
As TIMEdetailed in 2015:
In 1991, in the wake of a coup d'etat in Haiti, thousands of Haitians fled by sea for the United States. In December of that year, Guantanamo Bay became the site of a refugee camp built to house those who sought asylum while the [George H.W.] Bush administration figured out what to do with them. Throughout the years that followed, the camp became home to thousands of native Cubans, too, who had also attempted to flee to the U.S. for political asylum. In the summer of 1994 alone, TIMEwrote the following May, "more than 20,000 Haitians and 30,000 Cubans were intercepted at sea and delivered to hastily erected camps in Guantanamo." In 1999, during conflict in the Balkans (and after the Haitian and Cuban refugees had been sent home or on to the States), the U.S. agreed to put up 20,000 new refugees at Guantanamo, but that plan ended up scrapped for being too far from their European homelands.
In a book initially published anonymously, former DHS official Miles Taylor claimed that former President Donald Trump discussed sending migrants to the U.S. naval base that is also infamously home to a torturous military prison, but it never actually happened.
Soboroff and Dilanian reported that immigrant rights advocates say the facility's past use "was driven in part by the fact that some of the Haitians were HIV-positive."
Wendy Young, president of the immigrant advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense, told NBC that the Biden administration's potential plans are "highly concerning," explaining that when the facility was used in the 1990s, it "proved highly deficient in terms of providing the services that migrant families and children urgently need, including legal representation."
"Instead of defaulting to a law enforcement response grounded in deterrence, the administration should instead live up to our legal and ethical obligation to allow Haitians to apply for asylum," Young said. "Conditions in Haiti underscore how essential that is."
Even though Haiti is still reeling from the July assassination of former President Jovenel Moise that was followed by a deadly earthquake and tropical storm last month, the Biden administration has ramped up deportations of Haitians in recent days under a pair of widely criticized removal policies, one of which the administration is defending in court.
This post has been updated to reflect that the administration has deported over a thousand Haitains since Sunday.
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