The recent political turmoil in Haiti brings back memories of Haitians who came under duress to West Virginia. In the 1970s and 1980s, Haitians fled the oppressive regime of Haiti’s president Francois (“Papa Doc”) Duvalier and their country’s extreme poverty. Many left by boat for Florida’s coast to seek asylum in the United States. President Jimmy Carter permitted most of them to remain in the United States. However, after the 1980 election, President Ronald Reagan’s administration imposed harsher policies. Haitians were detained as illegal aliens and incarcerated.
Fifty-two women were separated from their families and sent to the Federal Correction Institution (FCI) in Alderson. In an interview with AP reporter, Strat Douthat, one woman described her perilous journey in a leaky boat from Haiti to the United States. They ran out of food and water. It was so crowded that she couldn’t lie down or stretch her legs. When she reached this country, she was badly dehydrated and starving. The women arrived in Alderson with only the clothes on their backs. Inmates at the prison and local churches donated money and clothing.
The Haitians at FCI had no legal counsel or money for lawyers. Believing they were treated as criminals and forgotten, they held two hunger strikes that garnered national attention to their plight. Finally, in June 1981, a federal court ruled the detained Haitians should be released. The Episcopal Church funded a program to send staff to FCI to help the women find family and sponsors. In August 1981, the first two women left Alderson after 10 months of detention.
Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia.
Sources: Strat Douthat, Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System by Carl Lindskoog; Washington Post; U. S. Policy Toward Haitian Boat People 1972-1993 by Christopher Mitchell.