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"America's 'Boat People'"
Cold War Geopolitics of Refuge
In November of 1980, an NBC television news helicopter hovers above Cayo Lobos, a tiny Bahamian atoll located just north of Cuba where over one hundred people seek shade from the lighthouse (see map 2 of Cayo Lobos). It has been almost six weeks since a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) patrol encountered the group, whom they identified as Haitian nationals, and alerted Bahamian and American authorities. The news report cuts to the island, using a series of close-up shots to illustrate the desperate conditions faced by migrants stranded there. A pregnant woman cradles her belly, while holding a plant in her other hand. She does not speak, but the reporter explains that for food the group has been relying on "roots, leaves, anything they could find." An emaciated man standing nearby also embodies their plight.
The view shifts from the group to a small boat approaching shore. Bahamian officials, dressed in red T-shirts and white shorts, land on the island, aiming to return the stranded migrants to Haiti. The operation does not go smoothly. The Haitians resist, using what the reporter describes as rusty knives, sticks, and seashells. Reverend Gérard Jean-Juste, a Haitian Catholic priest based in Miami, has arrived on the island from Florida with a news crew and prays with a group of men gathered around him. Jean-Juste reportedly appeals for nonviolence. But an hour after his departure, Bahamian police "in battle dress" land on the beach. Holding automatic weapons, they brusquely order reporters to "pack up and get out." The broadcast cuts to an aerial view of a police agent shooting tear gas into the interior of the island. Another group of officers surrounds the trapped migrants, beating them with nightsticks and kicking them with their boots. Viewers do not see the migrants forced onto a boat, but we are told that they have begun their trip back to Haiti. A Bahamian government spokesperson explains to a Florida newspaper, "There were some problems initially, with the Haitians refusing to go, but there was nothing physical."
This scene on Cayo Lobos occurred only a few months after the spectacular Mariel Boatlift, wherein some 125,000 Cubans arrived in south Florida after Fidel Castro selectively opened travel to the United States from Cuba's Mariel Harbor. For people familiar with migration in the Caribbean at the time, this protracted crisis on Cayo Lobos was a stark — if not surprising — illustration of the racial politics and geopolitics in the region. This chapter draws out how these international political dynamics and U.S. domestic politics resulted in disparate treatment of Haitian and Cuban migrants taking to the Caribbean seas to reach U.S. shores. We further situate this crisis on Cayo Lobos, and the treatment of Haitian asylum seekers more broadly, in relation to other crises involving U.S. military authorities at sea in Southeast Asia at the same time.
The dominant telling of migration crises featuring "boat people" in this historical moment — the rescue of Vietnamese nationals, the threat of Haitian nationals, and the welcome of Cuban nationals — remembers them as unrelated events. Yet this exercise of exclusion on this tiny island was not just incidentally related to the contemporaneous "humanitarian" responses to Vietnamese refugees. Rather, U.S. officials were conscious that the United States could not condemn pushbacks of migrants in Southeast Asia and simultaneously engage in such practices with Haitian asylum seekers. Indeed, we link these episodes to question how humanitarian and deterrence policies have come to be understood and narrated as opposing practices. The history we trace in this chapter and throughout the book shows them as simultaneous and symbiotic: U.S. foreign policy manifests simultaneously in both humanitarian rescue and migration control.
This chapter makes a twofold argument. First, the deployment of a dichotomous migration discourse of rescue versus deterrence, good versus bad migrant, and bona fide versus bogus refugee is a well-rehearsed, racializing discourse long applied to people crossing borders. Such dichotomies of who deserves welcome and care versus who deserves punishment and exile animate differential inclusion and exclusionary migration practices. Analyzing how these categories work together is imperative for informing the geopolitical histories that gave rise to contemporary U.S. migration, enforcement, and detention policies. The development of offshore and onshore enforcement histories also sheds light on historic events transpiring across the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean where unprecedented numbers of crossings and deaths are taking place, and where similar debates about militarization, humanitarianism, and deterrence are unfolding (Hodge 2015; Stierl 2017).
On the Bahamian atoll in 1980, Coast Guard telephone logs and telegrams record a simultaneously intimate and international account of the prolonged crisis that these migrants endured while multilateral and interagency negotiations took place. Ten days into their time on the island, a shipping vessel told the U.S. Coast Guard that four or five people had died and that "several pregnant women were due to deliver 'at any moment.'" As the days proceeded, logs report that people were "suffering from several medical problems." The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had communicated to the Coast Guard that transporting the Haitians to Miami or to Haiti were both "unacceptable options." The Bahamian government indicated that it "prefer that we not remove any other Haitians from the island," although it did "gratefully accept" humanitarian assistance provided by the Coast Guard.
A week after the Coast Guard had made its third airdrop of food and water rations, 102 Haitian migrants remained on the island, despite assurances that the Bahamian Home Affairs office planned to charter a boat to shepherd them away. The Coast Guard alerted the State Department that the "urgent humanitarian plight" faced by "increasingly destitute" people would not be relieved by making another airdrop because of their "exposure to the elements and their lack of basic supplies." By this point, the airdrop operation was so involved that the Coast Guard district operating in the area had run out of containers and parachutes. As negotiations continued among U.S. embassy staff and Bahamian and Haitian officials, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also attempted to intervene and conduct credible fear interviews on the island. Bahamian officials would not confirm that they had received the UNHCR's request.
By November 8, the crisis had begun to receive national television coverage in the United States. Three days later, Reverend Jean-Juste landed on the island with a news crew and advised the stranded group not to return to Haiti. Jean-Juste headed the Miami-based Haitian Refugee Center (HRC), which had just won a significant ruling on the discriminatory treatment of Haitians. Coast Guard logs report that the media had "informed the Haitians that the Bahamians would be returning them to Haiti and [that] the refugees not only refused to board the Lady Moore but attacked the vessel's crewmen." The following day, the Bahamian Defense Force dispatched police to remove the stranded migrants. The Coast Guard observed that the "evacuation," contrary to Bahamian claims, "was not smooth and use of force, including small arms fire, was involved. The Haitians strenuously resisted their evacuation and it appears that several may have been injured or even shot during the melee." The media reported that the migrants had locked arms to protest their removal. President Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Cabinet Gene Eidenberg, meanwhile, told the press that the White House had just learned about the crisis: "I'm outraged ... the White House is looking into the question of how this situation was allowed to occur and be known to officials of the American Government for 30 days without higher authorities being advised of the situation and action taken."
An editorial in the Miami Herald decried all of the countries involved in the crisis for arguing over jurisdiction while people faced starvation (Miller 2006, 41). The criticism only partially identified the geopolitical conflicts at hand. The international debate buffeting Haitian lives was real, but it was also longstanding, and none of the parties could claim fully humanitarian intent. Following World War II (WWII), the Bahamas had grown increasingly reliant on Haitian labor, but by the late-1950s, the government had already begun trying to thwart Haitian migration, often through mass arrests and deportations. The government of Haiti sometimes would accept the return of its citizens, but other times it would not. When accepted, deportees were subjected routinely to interrogation and torture. Haitians, many of whom did not want to return to Haiti, often would attempt to migrate to the United States; by the early 1980s, researchers estimated that 60 percent of the Haitians living in Miami had lived in the Bahamas (Boswell 1983, 59).
Nor was the United States a disinterested party, domestically or internationally, in what was transpiring on Cayo Lobos. The highest levels of the U.S. administration — the State Department, the Department of Justice, and the National Security Council (NSC) — were aware of the effect that Bahamian deportations had on domestic migration politics (particularly in Florida), and on bilateral relations in the region. Since at least 1972, the arrivals of Haitians by boat had drawn enough political concern from Florida politicians that they began to pressure the federal government to implement practices to dissuade Haitian migration. The Carter administration had recently negotiated with the Bahamas on a series of issues, including migration and formalization of the 1964 Grey Agreement, that authorized the US Coast Guard to assist the Bahamian Coast Guard in search and rescue and law enforcement. White House national security staffers had "no reason to believe that the Bahamians are not disposed to be cooperative in controlling the constant trickle of illegal Haitian immigrants." With four U.S. military bases in Bahamian territory at the time, the United States valued its agreement with the Bahamas as an "integral part of the base structure in the Caribbean area," a geostrategic position that the Bahamian government sought to use in negotiating for economic assistance.
All of these dynamics were at play when Bahamian officials attempted to use the forcible return of the Cayo Lobos migrants to Haiti as leverage to compel the United States or United Nations to take responsibility for all unauthorized Haitians living in the Bahamas. At the same time, the United States was engaged in its own planning efforts to prevent Haitian migration. Mere weeks before this incident, Eidenberg had been part of discussions with the Coast Guard, the Justice Department, and the National Security Council concerning U.S. "legal authority to interdict Haitian refugee boats outside the U.S. waters for the purpose of returning the passengers to Haiti."
Cayo Lobos, in short, was neither an isolated island nor incident. The waters surrounding it were subject to years of negotiations over law of the sea, bilateral policing practices, and military presence. The Haitians who had landed here were neither passive victims, nor could they fully control the economic and political forces that shaped their lives. Their faces on the nightly news could be read within a dominant U.S. (and Bahamian) narrative that they were economic migrants fleeing the poorest country in the northern hemisphere and were people whose protection was deemed humanitarian, not political. This enduring distinction between the humanitarian and the political is encapsulated in the distinction between the boatlifts of Indochinese refugees, narrated as humanitarian rescue operations, and the Haitian Program, detailed later and designed to dissuade Haitian migration to Florida. These were both racialized and geopoliticized responses, one positioning the United States as savior, the other positing the United States as enforcer, ostensibly under threat. The United States succeeded for decades in mobilizing these discourses to exclude Haitians, which is why we do not know what happened to the pregnant woman and her unborn child. They appeared fleetingly on U.S. newsreels, only to disappear from the view of an international audience once the Haitians were returned.
THE WAR IN VIETNAM AND COLD WAR MIGRATION CRISES
The fall of Saigon is remembered in U.S. narratives of the Vietnam War as the period of days in April 1975 when the U.S. military conducted a massive humanitarian airlift of refugees out of the city to begin new lives in the United States. Yen Lê Espiritu (2014, 25) argues that the "narrative of the 'good refugee' has been key in enabling the United States to turn the Vietnam War improbably into a 'good war' — an ultimately necessary and moral war." As Espiritu demonstrates compellingly in Body Counts, this "good-war narrative requires the production not only of the good refugee but also of a good refuge" (emphasis in original). In this geographical imagination, not only are refugees constructed as external and "out-of-place victims," but Americans are able to claim the identity of "magnanimous rescuers," thereby displacing U.S. military aggression (10; also see Lipman 2012; Nguyen 2012).
Indeed, the domesticating work of refugee resettlement is illustrated in the U.S. Army's After Action Report published in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon, which refers to the operations as "housekeeping chores" (1977, I-A-7). The cover of the report features an illustration of a friendly white soldier wearing a baseball cap shaking the hand of a traditionally dressed Vietnamese man (see figure 1). The men smile at each other while a Vietnamese woman, presumably the latter's wife, stands behind the two men's clasped hands, holding a swaddled baby. The scene conveys a transparent sense of benevolence and completion, reworking masculinity from the predominance of violent conflict to a shared (though not evenly) project of masculinist protection (Young 2003). A narrative in the report describes the day-to-day process of resettlement for a "fictitious Vietnamese family," demonstrating how a Vietnamese father is able to keep his family unified and healthy in the United States with the support of civilian government agencies, voluntary refugee organizations, and medical officials.
The U.S. war in Southeast Asia and its evacuation of some 130,000 people from Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975 relied on a much longer history of imperialism and military occupation (discussed in our introduction) there and in the region. The U.S. evacuation engaged transnational landscapes of occupation and militarization. Over 90 percent of the Vietnamese refugees who fled in 1975 were transported through U.S. bases on Guam, Wake Island, or the Philippines (Espiritu 2014, 26). Army personnel to staff these operations were transported to these sites from bases in Hawai'i, South Korea, Japan, and North America (Department of the Army 1977).
Three "refugee reception centers" were initially established on military facilities in the U.S. mainland — Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, and Eglin Air Force Base (AFB) in Florida — achieving what the Army called a "practical and politically acceptable geographic distribution of sites across the country" (I-A-6-7). Overcrowding and tension at camps on Guam and the approach of typhoon season led to the establishment of a fourth site at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania (x). American studies scholar Perla Guerrero notes that these centers also had been chosen to "disperse the refugee populations, an attempt to preemptively halt the formation of ethnic enclaves" (2016, 237).
The U.S. government's plans for resettlement onshore have been narrated in contradictory ways: as an ad hoc, last-minute response, and as a set of logical, well-executed plans (Kennedy 2014; Department of the Army 1977) (see figure 2). The long history of U.S. military activity and the scale of its capacity in the Pacific region created the conditions for a militarized operation (Davis 2011; Espiritu 2014; Loyd et al. 2015). Despite their practical power, even military records show that U.S. authorities could not act unilaterally and were forced to contend with resistance from residents living near military facilities and the independent migration of the Vietnamese civilians whom they sought to direct.
Excerpted from "Boats, Borders, and Bases"
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Race and the Cold War Geopolitics of Migration Control
1 "America's'Boat People'" 31
Cold War Geopolitics of Refuge
2 Militarizing Migration 54
The Politics of Asylum and Deterrence
Part 2 Building the World's Largest Detention System
3 "Not a Prison" 87
Building a Deportation Hub in Oakdale, Louisiana
4 "Uncle Sam Has a Long Arm" 117
War and the Making of Deterrent Landscapes
Part 3 Expanding the World's Largest Detention System
5 Safe Haven 147
The Creation of an Offshore Detention Archipelago
6 Onshore Expansion 175
Consolidating Deterrence through Criminalization and Expulsion
7 Post-9/11 Policing 201
Back to the Future