“The Haitians' plight is a tragedy of immense proportion, and their continued detainment is totally unacceptable to this court.”
On June 8, 1993, US District Court Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. declared the detention of 276 HIV positive refugees from Haiti unconstitutional and unacceptable.
Judge Sterling’s decision brought an end to Guantanamo’s “HIV Camp” where Haitian asylum seekers, fleeing the violence unleashed in the aftermath of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s overthrow had been detained.
In an unprecedented course of action, Haitians who sought the protection of the US government were tested for the HIV virus.
The 276 individuals who had tested positive for the virus were kept in what is now infamously remembered as the Guantanamo HIV Camp, distinguished for being the world’s first and only detention center for people with HIV/AIDS.
The "Camp" was described by visitors and prisoners alike as “pure hell.”
In an article published by the Associated Press in December 1993, Michael Ratner, a New York attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights describes the facilities as a “nightmare.”
INS policies, reflecting the Bush and Clinton administration’s policies, ignored warnings from Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Services, James Mason, and the Centers for Disease Control that the HIV camp had the potential to become a public health disaster.
As reported in The Nation and other news outlets some detainees died because the INS ignored their medical conditions or requests for urgent medical care.
When asked to explain why detainees’ medical needs were not addressed, INS spokesman Duane “Duke” Austin replied, “They’re going to die anyway, aren't they?”
In its landmark decision against the INS, Judge Johnson Jr. wrote that “It is outrageous, callous and reprehensible that defendant INS finds no value in providing adequate medical care even when a patient's illness is fatal."
The camps' squalor, the lack of medical care and the knowledge that they were once again treated unfairly, prompted camp residents to fight back with protests and hunger strikes.
Many smuggled letters out of the camps which described the conditions under which they were living and their own efforts to understand why they had been detained.
Many had not known about their HIV status until tested by the INS, and the news compounded the trauma of a journey defined by political violence, uncertain passage at sea, incarceration and death.
They had sought refuge in the US but their "safe haven" had morphed into a nightmarish hovel where violence and humiliation defined the parameters of their daily routines.
The legal decision was the culmination of a protracted battle waged in the courtroom by legal teams, and on the streets of New York, Boston, and Miami by Haitians, Haitian-Americans, friends of the community and HIV activists outraged by this blatant and unprecedented act of discrimination.
Twenty years later this episode has faded into the collective memories of a community engaged in so many battles to defend its rights to equal treatment under the law.
Twenty years later, we remember and we honor those who fought against an outrageous and heinous policy specifically targeting Haitians fleeing well-documented barbaric acts of violence.
We extend once again our words of gratitude to those who waged the battle in the courtrooms, in the media and on the streets.
To the 276 men and women who, in spite of having been handed a death sentence under inhumane conditions, endured and continued to strive for the right to live and die in dignity we say, “Onè Respè- Honor and Respect. You fought the good fight. Priyè a monte, gras la desan.”