The results of the recent election have triggered much soul searching, perhaps no more so than with students enrolled in colleges, law schools, and other institutions of higher education, wondering what kind of world awaits them. Many are frustrated, asking if there is more that could have been done to change the outcome of the election, or what can be done now to protect our most vulnerable communities from harm, discrimination, and the fear of persecution. I teach now, in a law school, and I have heard the anxiety and confusion in my students’ voices, and seen it in their eyes. But I’ve also seen something else: a desire to get involved, to do something, to play a part in something bigger than themselves, to have a role in combatting discrimination and the forces of fear.
I was a student once too, and my fellow students and I saw injustice in the world and wanted to correct it. It was why many of us had gone to law school in the first place. This was in the middle of the first Bush Administration, when a so-called New World Order meant disruption throughout the world and a new American dominance on the global stage. When a coup in Haiti ousted the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, thousands of political refugees fled the country, many by boat, and fears of an influx of these refugees in the battleground state of Florida (the 1992 election was looming), set the Bush Administration to open a camp for them at a place few had heard of before: the U.S. Naval Base on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. At first, the camp became a staging ground, where refugees would be assessed for their claims of political asylum. Consistent with the U.S. government’s international obligations, if the refugees were found to have a credible asylum claim, they would be taken to the United States for processing of that claim, with full due process protections.
But this was also a time of AIDS hysteria, and the Haitian refugees were screened for their HIV status. If a refugee tested positive, he or she was detained, indefinitely, in the camp. Given their health status, one government official even said they would likely die there.