Devastated then Detained: Will the US Incarcerate Haitians at Gitmo?

03/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the wake of devastation following this month's earthquake in Haiti and the ongoing problems delivering aid to Port-au-Prince, the State Department has begun identifying assets to deal with a potential immigration influx to the United States. Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, better known for its questionably legal military operations, emerged as an early favorite for detaining people caught at sea.

Given what we know about the history of detention at Guantánamo and the GEO Group, the private prison corporation currently running the Migrant Operations Center (MOC) at Gitmo, however, these early media reports should give us pause.

This will not be Haitians' first experience at the base. Before Gitmo was infamous for holding 'enemy combatants' and as a site of torture, the MOC held HIV positive Haitians and Cuban, Chinese, and Guyanese migrants apprehended at sea. The base was operated by American authorities as a joint project of DHS and the State Department, until 2003 when it was handed over to a private prison corporation called the GEO Group.

GEO has a legacy of infamy. Its previous incarnation, Wackenhut, the private corrects and security firm was maligned for its abuses at immigration detention centers, juvenile jails, and work-release facilities. In recent years, 3 other GEO facilities shuttered in Texas, after suicides and abhorrent conditions forced Texas authorities to pull their prisoners from GEO facilities. More recently, the company's giant Reeves County Detention Center in west Texas has come under assault from civil rights organizations and inmates alike. Immigrant prisoners at the facility rioted -- twice -- protesting a wave of preventable deaths due to inadequate medical care.

Given this history of questionable performance on the taxpayers' dime, it's a wonder GEO is still operating.

The on-shore U.S. immigrant detention system hasn't faired much better in recent years.

This month, detainees at three ICE facilities -- York County Detention Center in Pennsylvania, Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas, and the Varick Street Detention Center in New York -- began spontaneous hunger strikes to protest conditions there. The hunger strikers at Port Isabel, which is owned and operated by ICE, report frequent use of solitary confinement, flagrant tampering with written grievances, beatings, and verbal abuse.

The immigrant detention system currently holds more than 33,000 people every day, in over 350 contracted facilities. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has no way of tracking these arrangements, the conditions within the far-flung detention system, and no legal way of ending contracts when operators demonstrate patterns of abuse. Detainees, according to an internal report, often suffer inadequate medical care, food, mental health, religious services, and contact with the outside world.

Given GEO's horrific track record and ICE's mismanagement of the detention system, human rights advocates are right to worry about the possibility of detaining Hatians at Gitmo. But the issue is further complicated by Guantánamo Bay's uncertain legal status as American territory. In the past, experts have questioned whether US laws are applicable to people at Gitmo. It is precisely this ambiguity that make it "an invaluable asset," because it allows authorities to both employ US law to detain and punish noncitizens and to avoid accountability for abuses. Extra-territorial detention is on the rise globally, a new strategy to prevent would-be asylum-seekers from obtaining protections under international law. Detained outside receiving countries, they exist in limbo, with no legal status, and cut off from legal counsel that might assist them.

While US military authorities seal off "secure zones" within Haiti and build a naval perimeter around the port, it is becoming clear that US interests lie with isolating the catastrophe, first, and humanitarian aid second. The government should be commended for extending Temporary Protective Status to Haitians in the US. Giving work permits allows people to send remittances to communities in Haiti, which will help the humanitarian situation in the future.

But detaining Haitians at Guatánamo -- by a company with questionable credentials -- should be taken off the table. GEO's track record and the emerging hunger strikes in ICE detention centers do not bode well for potential Haitian migrants. Detaining Haitians at Guatánamo would counter to the outpouring of aid and assistance from individual Americans, and the collective international commitment emerging to rebuild Haiti. Furthermore, the U.S. should rethink its long-standing policy of detaining immigrants at an off-shore private detention center like the Migrant Operations Center.