“Once in a while a letter of anguish makes its way out of one of the detention facilities for Haitian refugees, as this one to [the] President … did a few weeks ago: `We did not flee our country in search of food and drink, like they say. You know this as well as we do, and yet you treat us like animals, like old rags forgotten in some corner. Do you think that in acting that way you dissuade us from our purpose? Do you think that you are thus morally destroying us? You are wrong.’ The letter, signed by 38 Haitian women [in] detention, went on: ‘This is a cry of despair, a final call to your nobleness, to your good judgment, to your title as a great power. We would be honored by a satisfactory answer from you, an answer to these luckless refugees who ask only for the charity of liberty.’
Those words were published April 24, 1982. The President was Ronald Reagan. The detention center for the 38 Haitian women was Fort Allen, in Puerto Rico. The article also reported, “Thirty-three (Haitian) women have been on a hunger strike for a week, protesting for freedom. Three are being fed intravenously. Physicians there report that the long incarceration has created widespread depression in the camp.” Those women were at Krome Detention Center, in Florida. Fort Allen is no longer used as a detention center. Krome is, very much so.
It’s 32 years since those Haitian women sought asylum, since they met the hard hand of mercy, as administered by the United States. The women then understood what women asylum seekers today understand. Being a refugee in the United States is hard, being an asylum seeker in the United States is somewhere between purgatory and hell, and being a woman asylum seeker is to inhabit and to be inhabited by a hell designed for women.
This week, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the ACLU of Northern California, the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), and the law firm Reed Smith LLP, today filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of immigrants fleeing persecution who have faced months of detention while they await reasonable fear determinations, the first step in seeking protection in the United States when someone is forced to return following a deportation order.
That’s promising. But it’s been promising now for thirty some years, with court case after court case, individual victory after individual victory, and then the return, or worse the leap forward, to the same old same old.
What the Haitian women knew was this: it’s not `the system’ that’s broken. It’s the heart. All the clever distinctions, such as political and economic, are heartless and inhumane, because they erase the core suffering and thus the possibility of hope.
It’s that time of the year, the time for sermons and speeches about liberty, emancipation, and love. Here’s mine: Love thy neighbor. Let none be treated like animals or like rags. Heed the cry of despair and the call to your own nobility. Practice the charity of liberty. Study the wisdom of the 71 Haitian women who wrote, who starved, for your freedom as much as for theirs. Make that wisdom yours.