As President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, begins his Senate confirmation process this week, it is worth recalling his role in the George H.W. Bush administration’s “HIV prison camp”, where asylum seekers were detained at notorious Guantanamo Bay.
During his first stint as attorney general from 1991 to 1993, Barr presided over the Justice Department as the U.S. was inundated with thousands of Haitian refugees, fleeing political persecution and economic hardship.
According to The Daily Beast, the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base held more than 12,000 Haitians at its peak, in squalid conditions and without adequate medical care.
Despite the inhumane environment and the fact that a federal judge ruled the detainment unconstitutional, Barr has defended his decision — and admitted it was in large part politically motivated.
The former attorney general bragged in 2001 about going head-to-head with then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney over the issue:
“I did point out that the notion, what do you want me to do? You want 80,000 Haitians to descend on Florida several months before the election? Come on, give me a break… Florida will go ape,” Barr told the University of Virginia’s Miller Center in a candid 2001 interview about his tenure at the Department of Justice, in which he supported the idea of making Guantanamo Bay a permanent immigrant processing center, outside the scope of U.S. law.
“Their position was, ‘Guantanamo is a military base, and why were all these people here, the HIV people, all these other people? How long are you going to be on our property with this unseemly business?’” Barr continued. “I’d say, ‘until it’s over. But we’re not bringing these people into the United States.’”
Considering his history with immigration policy, there is increasing concern that Barr is a particularly poor choice for attorney general in the Trump administration, which has taken hardline immigration policy further than most any administration before it.
“Given this administration’s troubling record of migrant deaths and family separation, we need an attorney general who will stand up to the president to ensure the safety of people fleeing for their lives,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told The Daily Beast. “I am worried Mr. Barr is not the man for the job.”
“Even Dick Cheney... not to mention the military’s own doctors, expressed concern about keeping these asylum seekers in Guantanamo for political gain. When you’re to the right of Dick Cheney on Guantanamo, you know you’ve gone too far.”
Immigration advocates are also alarmed at the possibility that Barr might return to such a position of power, considering how he abused that power in the past:
“Detention at Guantanamo was a calculated effort to deny any constitutional or legal rights to bona fide refugees and targeted and stigmatized Haitians because of their illness,” said Lucas Guttentag, the founding national director of the Immigrants' Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and co-counsel in fighting for the refugees’ freedom. “The conditions were deplorable, and the callous lack of sensitivity to human suffering and fundamental human rights was shocking.”
“While individual doctors and medical providers did what they could, the conditions made any notion of adequate care impossible,” Guttentag said.
It took a federal court ruling in 1993 to finally shut down the detention of HIV-positive Haitian refugees.
With President George H.W. Bush’s defeat in the 1992 election, Barr left the crisis in the hands of the Clinton administration. Although President Bill Clinton had campaigned on closing Guantanamo Bay, the Haitian refugees were left in limbo until June 1993, when District Court Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. ruled that the indefinite detention of HIV-positive asylum seekers without medical care was a blatant violation of constitutional due process—and likened the facility that still held more than 200 HIV-positive Haitians to a concentration camp.
Guantanamo’s existence has remained controversial in the time since, and Barr’s unethical use of the facility combined with his anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT beliefs makes for a huge red flag as he potentially heads to the Justice Department once again.
“Barr’s embrace and continued-defense of concentration camps for HIV-positive Haitian asylum seekers, as well as his leading role in fighting to ban immigrants living with HIV from entering the country, is appalling,” said Aaron C. Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality, a nonprofit organization that advocates for LGBT and HIV-positive people in the immigration system. “Immigrants living with HIV deserve an attorney general who cares about their well-being and respects their human rights. William Barr has yet to demonstrate that he is interested in doing either.”
In the decades since Camp Bulkely’s closure, internment-as-law-enforcement has become the norm in immigration policy—a development that Pitzer, the expert in concentration camps, finds deeply troubling.
“My worry is, we’re institutionalizing a sort of concentration camp approach—that it’s acceptable American policy,” Pitzer said. “Every administration has made terrible politically minded decisions that do not look at the humanitarian situation and attempt to skirt the humanitarian interpretations of the law… but by [repeating] the things that have already happened, they’ve left an opening for the Trump administration to do more, and worse.”