Eduardo Gamarra for NPR: “ Even in Arkansas - I'd been there for five years. I had never seen Ku Klux Klan. And they were right there.”

February 9, 2023

Eduardo Gamarra had a conversation with NPR in which he reflected on the history of Cuban immigration to the US.


(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE) MIMI WHITEFIELD: These rumors just sort of went crazy.

JOE DAVIS: We have been invaded by aliens from outer space. They're psychologically totally not even human.

MICHAEL BUSTAMANTE: What did it mean to spend time in prison in Cuba?

DOMINGO AMUCHASTEGUI: The kind of population that is leaving are the scum of society. MARK HAMM: They weren't those vagrants, murderers. They weren't that. They weren't scum. But that is the image that has persevered.

JERRY WALSH: There were thousands of people who didn't have so much as a friend whom they could call. What do you do with those people?

ANDREW BECK GRACE, HOST: On December 9, 1923, a Belgian steamship called the Mercier left Antwerp for the United States. Aboard were 62 passengers and four stowaways. After two weeks at sea, the Mercier arrived in Alice Island just before Christmas. The manifest given to immigration authorities showed passengers from Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Portugal, England and one person from Romania.

His name was Ignatz Mezei. Ignatz Mezei settled in Buffalo, N.Y. He worked as a cabinetmaker, married a woman named Julia and became stepfather to her four sons. In the spring of 1948, after Mezei had been in the country for 25 years, he learned his mother was sick. And he decided he'd go back across the ocean to care for her. He made it only as far as Hungary when he received word that his mother had died. But the process for getting back from Hungary took longer than expected. Even though he'd established a life in the U.S., he had never formally applied for U.S. citizenship. He was coming back to the country as an immigrant.

BRANTLEY: Mezei arrived in the U.S. - again at Ellis Island - in February of 1950. Inspectors had once conducted interviews of immigrants aboard ships before allowing them entrance into the country, but the sheer number of arrivals in the early 20th century had made this untenable. So Congress passed several laws that permitted the, quote, "temporary removal of a passenger" for inspection and questioning. During this temporary removal, Mezei and others like him were physically very much inside the United States. After all, they were literally standing on the soil of the country on Ellis Island.

But legally, it was something much different. The law made it very clear that they were not considered to be in the country at all. They were petitioning to come in. And until granted that permission, it was as if they were still floating off the coast. And floating off the coast, a non-citizen has no constitutional rights, no due process. This doctrine became known as the entry fiction. So even as Mezei stood there on Ellis Island in 1950, after being pulled off the ship for an entrance interview with an inspector, he was not legally in the country. And unlike his first arrival to the U.S. in 1923, this time, he was not quickly released.

Instead, immigration authorities were unswayed by his story of the 25 years he'd spent building a life in Buffalo. Mezei, they claimed, was a communist, or, at the very least, a communist sympathizer. And in the height of the Red Scare, that was enough for them to deny him entry and order him excluded from the country. His home country of Romania wouldn't take him back, and he could find no other country to take him, either. So he was trapped on Ellis Island, where his body sat in a cell in the detention center there - on U.S. soil, but because of the entry fiction, legally speaking, floating off the coast. And in this Kafkaesque nightmare, this man without a country sat bound but not protected by U.S. laws as month after month after month passed by.

GRACE: At this point, you may be asking yourself, why are they telling me this sad story of Ignatz Mezei? Well, because when the Mariel Cubans began arriving in 1980, just like Mezei, they were coming to the country's shore and asking for permission to come in. While the president himself had welcomed them with an open heart and open arms, the rumors that the boatlift was filled with criminals cast a shadow over the refugees at the very moment the federal government was trying to figure out what to do with all of them. Did they have the right to have rights in this country or could they be trapped by the entry fiction, floating there off the coast of Key West?


GRACE: From NPR, this is WHITE LIES. I'm Andrew Beck Grace.
JACK WATSON: If I had to identify the most complicated, most complex challenge of intergovernmental coordination, this was it, in my whole four years in the White House. It was immense.

GRACE: Jack Watson was a domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter. He's the one who cautioned the president not to say too much about the boatlift at the League of Women Voters luncheon, the so-called open heart and open arms speech. In late April 1980, as the reports came in about the thousands of Cuban refugees arriving in Key West and the rumors about who was coming from Cuba began spreading in the press, it fell to Watson's office to coordinate the U.S. response to the Mariel boatlift. Watson and his team were in daily contact with the Coast Guard, the Navy, the INS, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, Housing, Urban Development - basically everybody. And one thing that became apparent to Watson right away was that they couldn't keep all the Mariel Cubans in Florida for processing. There were just too many people, and they were arriving way too fast. They needed a place to conduct entrance interviews, to do health screenings, to connect the refugees with social services, to try and track down family in the U.S. or find others who would sponsor them.

WATSON: You don't just send them into New York City and to the mayor and say, look, here's a couple of thousand people. Do what you will with them. I mean, you can't do that. Well, where do you have sort of ready-made places where you could physically house and feed and take care of people while you're working out other arrangements?

BRANTLEY: Some of the most ready-made places to turn into makeshift refugee resettlement centers were military bases. Watson and his staff were on a first-name basis with every governor in the country, so they started working the phones.

WATSON: When I called - in many cases, it would be me to call and say, Governor, we've got a problem here. We've got people that we need to house. We've done a survey of the military bases across the country. One of them is in your state. Could you work with us on this? That's what we were doing. That's what I did with Bill Clinton.

BRANTLEY: Yeah. How did that - how was that conversation?

WATSON: Hard. Hard, but Bill was a friend.

BRANTLEY: Watson's a little older than Clinton, but they'd both grown up in Arkansas, and they'd known each other a long time. Clinton was actually wrapping up his first term as governor of the state and was running for reelection. In those days, Arkansas held gubernatorial elections every two years.

WATSON: He was in the midst of a governor's race, and he was very reluctant. He and Hillary were very reluctant to take those people. So it was a matter of coming to an agreement to do it, and we did, and much to my dismay and profound chagrin, it didn't turn out well.

BRANTLEY: After a round of phone calls, Watson's office secured space at four military bases - Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and that outpost in Arkansas Bill Clinton was reluctant to use as a refugee holding site, Fort Chaffee, an Army reserve base in the northwestern corner of the state.

JOANNE NORTON: This was a big old Army training base that had been built during World War II. I mean, my dad went to basic training there. Elvis went to basic training there.

GRACE: That's JoAnne Norton. In 1980, JoAnne was a reporter with the Southwest Times Record, the daily newspaper in nearby Fort Smith. And yeah, she's right about Elvis Presley. Chaffee is where the king got his famous haircut after being drafted in 1958, trading his pompadour for a high and tight. Norton's beat included Fort Chaffee, which meant she occasionally went out to watch some training maneuvers or artillery practice.

NORTON: You know, it wasn't exactly, like, a hopping place. And then all of a sudden, it got really hopping really fast.


GRACE: The first planeload of Mariel refugees landed at the Fort Smith Municipal Airport on Friday, May 9, at 6 p.m. There were 128 refugees aboard, and as they disembarked, they were greeted by military police, newspaper reporters and a single protester, a retired Marine sergeant who lived nearby and who had somehow snuck onto the Air National Guard landing strip wearing full Ku Klux Klan regalia. As military police dragged him away, he loudly accused President Carter of, quote, "letting the country go down the drain by letting foreigners and hoodlums come in and get welfare," end quote.

NORTON: And that area is a very white area, and you have people who are very insular. They don't like outsiders of any kind. The Cubans weren't so welcome. People were arming. The scuttlebutt among the folks at the sheriff's office was that you couldn't buy a gun because they were sold out.

GRACE: Over the next few weeks, 19,000 Mariel refugees arrived at Fort Chaffee from South Florida. And those stories we told you about last time, about how Castro had emptied his prisons of the worst of the worst, by the time the refugees got to Arkansas, those stories about them had already taken root.

NORTON: First of all, there was a rumor. You know, there was talk, chatter, and this was, you know, like, pre-Fox. But they were people saying that, you know, over half these people are criminals and they're crazy people from the asylums, and they're brown or Black, and of course they're all communists.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Russia said that they would take the United States without ever firing a gun, and they're doing it right now. They've done it, and we're sitting on our cans and doing nothing about it.

GRACE: That's the voice of a resident from a town near Fort Chaffee. This recording is from a 1981 documentary about the boatlift called "Against Wind And Tide." They filmed it for Chaffee and its surrounding communities, characterizing the attitudes of locals to what was happening at the camp.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think that'd have been the thing to have done is shot them as they came in, just gunned them down. I think everybody here would want to chip in and buy a huge boat and send it back across, and I couldn't help it if it did get sunk.

NORTON: The Klan was there, being obnoxious. Don't let them in. They're criminals. They're communists. That was an interesting thing. Having to drive by robed Klu Klux Klansman on the way to my work to get onto the base was disconcerting.


EDUARDO GAMARRA: Even in Arkansas - I'd been there for five years. I had never seen Ku Klux Klan. And they were right there.

BRANTLEY: In May of 1980, Eduardo Gamarra had just graduated from the University of Arkansas. He's from Bolivia originally and had been recruited by the track team in Arkansas. When thousands of Cuban refugees started arriving at Fort Chaffee, just 60 miles south of campus, Spanish speakers were in short supply and high demand. Gamarra didn't have a job lined up for the summer, so he took a posting inside Fort Chaffee, helping to resettle refugees.

GAMARRA: They had essentially set up a call center with computer printouts of all of the refugees. Basically, our job was to find refugees inside the camp and try to locate their families.

BRANTLEY: But the process was rarely straightforward.

GAMARRA: First, we would go through phone books. There was no internet or anything else, so we'd have to go through phone books, looking for names. And a lot of them, you know, would come with little pieces of paper that had survived the entire trip. And so they would say, well, you know, here's Jose Gomez, you know, who lives in - all they knew was, you know, Hialeah, let us say. So you can imagine how many Jose Gomezes or Jose Garcias - so you'd have, you know, maybe hundreds of names. And so part of the thing was, OK, well, do you have at least, you know, a street? And so we would find - we would locate their relatives here.


BRANTLEY: But even the easiest cases weren't that easy. If you found a relative, you'd have to find transportation. And the INS and the FBI were still conducting interviews of the refugees in the camp, which was separate from what Gamarra was doing. Add to that the massive number of Cuban Americans who began showing up at Fort Chaffee to pick up their relatives. Many found that even though they confirmed their relative was inside, the process was moving so slowly that they would spend days waiting for them to be released.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Some of the Cubans are getting impatient as they wait to be processed out of resettlement centers. At Fort Chaffee, Ark., last night, a number of Cubans stormed out through an unguarded gate.

BRANTLEY: Just a few weeks after the camp opened, a group of refugees decided to leave the camp in protest. Gamarra remembers arriving to work at the base and seeing refugees outside the gate.

GAMARRA: As I was coming into the base at the entrance of Fort Chaffee were, I would say, maybe a hundred refugees. A lot of them were Black. All of a sudden, I saw Klu Klux Klan. Right next to them were the sheriff. From the prospective to the KKK and the police, these guys are just a bunch of dark foreigners. And so they said, when are we going to get out? We've been here 10 days now. When are we going to get out? They assumed that once they arrived, they would be immediately - you know, be able to go with their families or what have you. But that changed the nature of Fort Chaffee because what was a relatively open camp then became essentially, you know, barbed wire all around. And it became a very, you know, very controlled space.

BRANTLEY: The barbed wire went up. The gates got locked and guarded. And the governor, Bill Clinton, sent in the National Guard to patrol the base. Here he is talking to reporters shortly after.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Governor, what do you think should be done to the refugees who try to escape?

BILL CLINTON: I think the ones who actually willfully violate the law should be sent away.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Deported back to Cuba.



GRACE: Without family to go to, sponsorships through church organizations or the like were the road out. But space at halfway houses and red tape for sponsorship organizations slowed the process, too. The process of getting sponsored out of Fort Chaffee could seem like an eternity, sometimes even for those who had family in the U.S.

GAMARRA: We had one case, for example, who came into our office, said he had a relative here in Miami, gave us the name, gave us the address. And we found the phone number. And so we called them. And I had the gentleman right in front of me when I was talking to the person here. And the person here tells me, is he standing in front of you? And I said, yes. And he'd like to speak to you. He says, please don't tell him you found me. I said, well, why not? And he said, well, because, you know, I live in Coral Gables. And in Coral Gables, a person of color, a Black person, is not going to be very welcome. You know, and I know he's my brother, but he's only my half brother. So we can't have him here.


GRACE: The interviews conducted by Gamarra and others were essentially a gateway to getting out. But the process was bogged down from the very beginning.

GAMARRA: I interviewed about 4,065 Mariel refugees that came through Fort Chaffee. I was a kid. And, you know, I sat there, and I - you know, I interviewed these people. And I was making basically decisions on whether they would end up in a prison, they would end up in Miami with their relatives or in a halfway house in Seattle. But that was the bureaucratic procedure. Bureaucracies are very insensitive. So once you establish the regulations, there's absolutely nothing you can do to go around them. And so it was that part of it that kind of dehumanizes the process because in the end, look. I told you I memorized literally hundreds of alien numbers, right? And sometimes, in talking to my coworkers, we would say, well, what about A23465 - you know, we wouldn't even remember their names.


GRACE: And these refugees who'd been the subject of countless rumors, who'd been made nameless by this bureaucratic process - it wasn't surprising to see how their story was playing outside the gates of Fort Chaffee.


UNIDENTIFIED STATE SENATOR: They invaded the United States of America. GRACE: That's the voice of an Arkansas state senator.


UNIDENTIFIED STATE SENATOR: And we stood by, let them land. And we have enough on the welfare roll.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You don't want to hear what I got to say because that won't be very nice. GRACE: That's a resident of the nearby community of Jenny Lind from the documentary "Against Wind And Tide" again.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There ain't no doubt there was a few good people over there to start with, but them that's over there now ain't nothing but queers and thugs. And anybody that was sponsoring one has got to be crazier than hell. They should be shot theirselves (ph). Now, that's exactly what I think.


GRACE: Ever since the boatlift began, the federal government had been slow to determine exactly what the Mariel Cubans' immigration status would be. In the files of the basement of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, we'd seen countless arguments about their legal status based on the federal government's shifting explanation. Because the Cubans arriving during the boatlift had no formal entry papers, no visas, no permission to come to the U.S., it posed a challenge about how to classify them. President Carter's open heart and open arms statement had been seen not only as a kind of formal invitation from the president himself but also as a declaration of their status. He had explicitly called them refugees.

DAVID MARTIN: I did not really know when I interviewed for the job that refugees were part of the business. But by the time my security clearance came through four months later, refugees were the big issue.

BRANTLEY: David Martin was a few years out of law school when he was offered a job at the State Department in their newly formed Human Rights Division. Martin was part of the team at the State Department who helped craft the Refugee Act of 1980. The Refugee Act had nothing to do with Mariel. That was pure coincidence that it had been signed into law three weeks before the boatlift began. But it did mean that the administration and people like David Martin in particular had been thinking a lot about how to deal with refugees. The act completely overhauled the legal framework for how the U.S. managed its refugee program. It increased the number of refugees the U.S. would accept every year. And it strengthened the country's humanitarian and resettlement programs around the world.

MARTIN: The model was there'd be - there are people in a refugee camp in Thailand or Malaysia. We say we're going to resettle X thousand from those locations and set up a screening process and kind of cultural learning process and the transportation to get them here. That's what covers people who come in from the overseas process.

DORIS MEISSNER: And then those who come to the United States are coming because they've already been determined to be refugees.

BRANTLEY: One of the people who worked with Martin on crafting the new law was Doris Meissner, who at the time worked in the DOJ as an assistant attorney general. One of the details of the Refugee Act that they'd fought for was to modernize the definition of what it meant to be a refugee.

MEISSNER: And it was the international definition, and that's the definition that says that a refugee is a person that is fleeing persecution or the likelihood of persecution based on five grounds - race, religion, ethnicity, political opinion or membership in a social group.

BRANTLEY: When the boatlift began in the spring of 1980, many people thought, OK, well, we have all these refugees streaming in - seems like a good time to test this new framework for handling refugees, especially since many of the Cubans who came to the U.S. during Mariel claimed to be fleeing persecution. But there was a problem. And the problem was that even though the president of the United States and himself referred to the Mariel Cubans as refugees when he welcomed them with an open heart and open arms, the Mariel Cubans weren't technically refugees, at least not in the way that the Refugee Act envisioned them. Technically speaking, they were asylum seekers.

MEISSNER: In other words, people arriving in the United States and then asking for protection as compared to the United States looking around the world or, you know, reacting to circumstances around the world where we as a country would determine abroad who is a refugee. And then those who come to the United States are coming because they've already been determined to be refugees.

BRANTLEY: That example of a person being in a refugee camp in Thailand or Malaysia and going through the screening process there to get approval to come to the United States as a refugee - the boatlift wasn't that. The Mariel Cubans were streaming into the U.S. without having gone through that screening process abroad.

MEISSNER: That was a whole different order of magnitude. It just hadn't happened before. Part of the decision-making, of course, just had to do with the sheer numbers and the manner in which this was taking place. I mean, this was an absolutely hostile act by the Cuban government. It was using immigration and migration as - it was weaponizing it. And so it was very difficult to know who was who without holding people for a while.

BRANTLEY: Remember Ignatz Mezei? He arrived at Ellis Island and was removed from his ship so that he could be interviewed by immigration officials to determine his status. And during that removal, he was not seen to be in the country at all. Legally, he was still floating on his ship, petitioning to come in. His presence in the country was called the entry fiction. And when immigration authorities finally denied him entrance to the country and he could find nowhere else to go, he was stuck there on Ellis Island, physically in the country, in a cell in a detention center, but legally seen to be floating off the coast with no due process, no constitutional rights. And because these more Cubans were not technically considered refugees, they were finding themselves in a similar position as Ignatz Mezei. Legally speaking, they were at the border and asking to be admitted into the country even though they were well within the borders of the country. And so on June 20, 1980, the Carter administration finally issued an order that would determine how the Mariel Cubans would be classified - not as refugees but instead as entrants, status pending.

MARTIN: I mean, it does sound pretty particularly shocking the way they talk about it as though you're still at sea and all that. But they didn't make that up. That was enshrined in some Supreme Court cases that are regarded as particularly harsh ones, but they're still effective law.

BRANTLEY: That's David Martin again. MARTIN: The long-standing legal fiction is you're - in the eyes of the law, even if you travel to the heartland, you're still effectively at the border knocking on the door, asking to be let in. And for those who are at the border asking to be let in, they have the fewest rights.


JANA LIPMAN: So there's this fiction created around their legal status.

GRACE: That's Jana Lipman, a scholar of U.S. immigration policy at Tulane who's written about Fort Chaffee's time as a resettlement camp.

LIPMAN: Fort Chaffee always had this schizophrenic mission because the individuals in it were in the United States but were not legally in the United States.

GRACE: Because the men and women staying in the barracks of Fort Chaffee were technically still floating off the coast of Key West, it meant that the Army base was now a border - for the Cubans, anyway. And with the border came the Border Patrol. When the camp opened, there were 10 Border Patrol agents assigned to the base. But soon enough, that number had doubled. And though the resettlement effort continued in earnest, it was taking place against an increasingly militarized backdrop.

LIPMAN: There was an element that was about teaching them to be American and to learn about American culture, and there was this element that was quite repressive where there was surveillance. They're not allowed to leave the camp.

GRACE: And a militarized border in the middle of the Ozarks became an echo chamber for the rumors that had dogged the Mariel Cubans since their arrival.

LIPMAN: The national media identified the barbed wire, the militarization, the guard. And this, I think, made a sense that the individuals inside were, in fact, criminals. There's already this reinforcement of the idea that this particular group of Cubans need to be confined and surveyed and policed, and then they, you know, have difficulty getting resettled. And of course they have difficulty getting resettled because they're being represented as those who are difficult.

GRACE: What was happening to the Mariel Cubans at Fort Chaffee was like a loop. The slower the process for getting sponsored out of the camp, the more frustrated those inside the camp became. And the more frustrated they became, the more they protested the conditions of their confinement. But by protesting and acting out, they decreased their likelihood for getting sponsored. And the longer the refugees stayed inside the camp, the more and more problematic they appeared to those on the outside.

GAMARRA: Dehumanization allows you to kind of just mistreat people.

GRACE: That's Eduardo Gamarra again.

GAMARRA: It's really the human tragedy. It's how utterly unprepared societies that receive immigrants are because nobody expected this wave, right? I mean, as soon as they - you know, they were escoria. They were this. They were that. They were sent here with a label. And you know what we did? We accepted the label.


RONALD REAGAN: My fellow citizens of this great nation, with a deep awareness of the responsibility conferred by your trust, I accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States.


GRACE: On July 17, 1980, across all four of the resettlement camps, there were almost 24,000 Mariel Cubans still looking for sponsors. And in Detroit, the Republican National Convention was in its final day, ending with this speech of its presidential nominee, Ronald Reagan.


REAGAN: I ask you not simply to trust me but to trust your values, our values, and to hold me responsible for living up to them. I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional or economic boundaries - the spirit that burned with zeal and the hearts of millions of immigrants from every corner of the earth who came here in search of freedom. Some say that spirit no longer exists. But I've seen it. I've felt it all across this land.

GRACE: It's hard to overstate just how charismatic a force Reagan was in national politics. The former actor's timing and style, honed by two terms as California's governor, gave him an easy victory in the Republican primary with a campaign focusing on lowering taxes, increasing defense spending and shrinking the federal government.


REAGAN: For those who've abandoned hope, we'll restore hope, and we'll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again.


GRACE: In early August, the Carter administration announced that to cut costs, all the remaining Mariel Cubans would be consolidated at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. The moves were staggered throughout September and October to give the newcomers time to assimilate into the camp. The consolidation was politically sensitive for not just Carter but also for Bill Clinton who, remember, was running for reelection as governor of Arkansas. As the consolidation got underway, Clinton's opponent, Republican Frank White, began focusing on the unpopular refugee camp. White ran this TV ad, which exclusively featured footage of Black and brown Mariel refugees.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There are no Cuban refugees in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa. There are no Cuban refugees at an Air Force base in Florida. There were no Cuban refugees at Fort McCoy, Wisc. All the Cuban refugees are in Arkansas. Why didn't Bill Clinton say no? Why didn't our governor have any influence? We need a governor who puts his state above his own political interest. Frank White will stand up for Arkansas.

GRACE: In November, Clinton lost the election, one of only two electoral defeats in his entire political career. And the Reagan administration took note that linking Clinton with the images of these Mariel Cubans had proven successful, writing in an internal document, quote, "Governor White was elected solely on the basis of this issue." Clinton's case hadn't been helped by troubling reports from inside Fort Chaffee. Ever since Chaffee had opened, there had been a detention area, a stockade inside the camp. It was called Level 2, and that's where authorities placed disciplinary cases, people who broke curfew or tried to jump the fence or got into fights, really anyone officials didn't want roaming around the general population of the camp. And that broad dehumanization of the refugees that the resettlement officer Eduardo Gamarra talked about? Not surprisingly, that was way worse inside Level 2.


JIM BURROUGHS: Level 2 was the jail for those refugees the immigration authorities decided were troublemakers. GRACE: That's the voice of Jim Burroughs, the director and narrator of the film "Against Wind And Tide."


BURROUGHS: We wanted to film inside the area and talk with a few of the prisoners, but Ted Martinez, the officer in charge of discipline, told us no. We did find out that this man was both judge and jailer for those inside Level 2. Not only were they denied due process, but like all the Mariel refugees, in or out of Chaffee, they barely had rights at all.

TED MARTINEZ: They don't have constitutional rights. Legally, these people are not in the United States. They're out there, 30 miles out, trying to get in.

GRACE: Legally, Martinez says, these people are not in the United States. They're out there, 30 miles out, trying to get in.

BRANTLEY: There had been rumblings in the camp that officers under Martinez's supervision were mistreating the refugees in Level 2. And that fall, all those rumblings turned into formal allegations of abuse that would later result in an 18-count indictment against five INS guards. One of the guards charged in the indictment called himself La Planadora, the steamroller. Another called himself La Muerte - death. The guards were accused of kicking the refugees, hitting them, beating them with batons. One sickening accusation, which was detailed in federal court by two other INS guards who testified under oath that they'd witnessed it, was that guards attacked a refugee who was on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of his confinement in Level 2. According to the testimony, the guards stripped him naked, handcuffed him to his bed and beat him with riot batons. Then, one of the officers maced him repeatedly in the face. When the refugee fell to the ground, the officer pulled him up by his hair and began macing him again.

AL WHITSON: You know, I suspect that my military background was one of the reasons that I wound up on that jury. I couldn't say for sure. I suspect that had a lot to do with it.

BRANTLEY: When the five INS officers were tried in federal court, Al Whitson was one of the jurors. At the time, Whitson was a computer programmer in the Arkansas Air National Guard. Like everyone in the area, he'd watched the news and heard the rumors about the criminal element that had come over in the boatlift.

WHITSON: I still wanted to listen to both sides and try to come to a fair decision about what I thought had happened and what I thought should be done.

BRANTLEY: Once he heard all the testimony, it didn't take long for Whitson to reach a conclusion.

WHITSON: They were basically charged with being systematically brutal as the keepers of these refugees. And in the end, there was no doubt in my mind that these five had all been systematically brutal towards them, towards the refugees. They stripped them naked and secured them face down to the bunks and then left. The officers left, and a little while later, returned. And when they returned, they were wearing full riot gear. I can't even imagine, you know, what that - what the anticipation was, all those Cubans when they came back in that way, you know, with full riot gear, helmets, batons, the whole nine yards. They were instruments of terror. It's just beyond me. It was just brutality, just careless, thoughtless brutality.

BRANTLEY: All but one juror agreed with him. Whitson said the holdout was an older guy who flat-out refused to convict the guards on any of the charges. He kept saying, I can't do it. I just can't do it. So after several days, the judge declared a hung jury. When the case was retried with a new jury, the guards were acquitted of all the charges.

WHITSON: Which doesn't surprise me all that much, because the Cubans were viewed as not really having any rights. They weren't citizens at that point. You know, what they did, they did in the name of the United States of America, the land of the free. We're supposed to welcome people who want to come to this country.

GRACE: By the winter of 1980, with the boatlift officially over and only around 6,000 refugees left in Fort Chaffee, the plight of these Mariel Cubans was beginning to fade away in the national consciousness.

PAUL HOEFFEL: Many of them were Black young men, unskilled, and these were considered to be sort of the most difficult people to find sponsors for.

GRACE: Paul Hoeffel was a reporter for the New York Times Magazine who was sent to Fort Chaffee in late 1980. The article he wrote was entitled "Fort Chaffee's Unwanted Cubans."

HOEFFEL: Reagan had just been elected that November when I was reporting. The economy was in very shaky shape. And so there was just that general public opinion that was turning sour against against the refugees as being expensive and dangerous and unwelcome group of people.

GRACE: What he found at Fort Chaffee were stories of hopelessness. Many of those in the camp had been released to community sponsors earlier in the year, but those sponsorships had broken down for one reason or another. People didn't get along. A halfway house closed down. A refugee was abused by their sponsor. Hoeffel spoke to one couple, a man and his wife, who had been sponsored to a farmer outside Savannah, Ga. The farmer, they said, would spit in disgust every time he saw the man, who was Afro-Cuban. When the farmer discovered that the woman was pregnant, he sent her back to Fort Chaffee without telling her husband. Eventually, the man discovered where his wife was, and he returned to Fort Chaffee to be with her, but now, because they'd had a failed sponsorship, they were at the bottom of the list to get out.

HOEFFEL: One of them told me that they had been told that if they did work, that they would have a better chance of finding a sponsor, that they would be looked at more favorably. But he said he didn't believe that any longer. He was just doing it in order to keep from going crazy.

GRACE: Hoeffel found that many of those he interviewed had spent time in Cuban jails, but they had mostly been jailed for vagrancy or participating in the black market, or that catch-all designator of suspected future dangerousness, peligrosidad.

HOEFFEL: Towards the end, sponsorships were getting more and more difficult because of the population but also their reputation. One of the INS people told me that they would receive requests from people saying we're willing to sponsor them if you can send me, you know, an educated white refugee who speaks English. We would be glad to take them. You know, and she told them, look, this is this is not a Sears catalogue. You don't put in orders for what you prefer.

BARBARA LAWSON: I had letters from people that they were very specific about the type of woman that they wanted. I wouldn't say that they were even looking for a refugee. I would say that they were looking for something else, reading between the lines.

BRANTLEY: That's Barbara Lawson. With the sponsorship program slowing to a trickle and in the wake of abuse allegations at Fort Chaffee, most of the camp leadership had been fired or reassigned, so Lawson had been sent from D.C. to be the new director. And as soon as she arrived, she started having to combat the rumor that Chaffee was full of so-called undesirables.

LAWSON: They usually said dregs. That was the word, dregs of society. With the press, you know, the only thing they were really interested in was the fact that Fidel had opened his prisons and sent us every undesirable that there were. So the press was always tried to corner me, but I learned early on to put a recorder on my desk and say, our conversation is going to be recorded, so it better show up pretty much the way I've just said it.

BRANTLEY: Those recordings she made in the early '80s, she held on to them and eventually sent them to an archive at the University of Miami, where we found them 40 years later. Here's a recording of Lawson talking to a reporter from the Miami Herald.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: People have been - the ones who have left have been described to me in various ways - the dregs, the deadbeats, the unwanted, the unwashed. LAWSON: Oh, I really take exception to that, and I feel that those are all terms that the media started using.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: These were from bureaucrats.

LAWSON: Well, I - unfortunately, if that's what people are saying, either in this camp or in Washington, I feel sorry for them because I think any time we look at people that way, then we manage to be able to separate our own humanness from those people.


LAWSON: And - no, not well. Just because somebody is Black or because somebody doesn't have an education or somebody is blind or cannot hear doesn't mean they're not human beings, and to say that they're scum or dregs or the unwashed, I think, is both cruel and inhumane.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: I agree with you. But, of course, one of the great criticisms of this camp is that's exactly what it's done, or of these camps, I should say, that's exactly what has been done. It put us, me, on the outside looking in, looking through barbed wire fences and saying those people...

LAWSON: I think it says a lot about our American society right now. Don't you?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: I don't want to think that.

LAWSON: Well, you know, you're an observer of the American society, and I would say there are some very frightening trends in our country right now. It concerns me.


BRANTLEY: The Reagan administration had promised the new Republican governor of Arkansas that the camp would close by August. When he'd accepted the Republican nomination the previous summer, Reagan had invoked the old ideas of the United States as a place of refuge for immigrants. But that was months ago. Now he was President Reagan, not candidate Reagan. Dealing with Cubans who were hard to sponsor out was inevitably going to be expensive and would require the further commitment of various governmental agencies. But Reagan's entire campaign - really, his entire career in politics - was characterized by an abiding distrust of the government and countless efforts to shrink its role. Take, for instance, this famous line from his inaugural address in January 1981.


REAGAN: Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.


BRANTLEY: What's more, Reagan hadn't exactly maintained his sympathetic view of the refugees. That spring, he wrote in his presidential diary, quote, "our first problem is what to do with thousands of Cubans, criminals and the insane that Castro loaded on refugee boats and sent here."

GRACE: But if Fort Chaffee was to close, what was to become of the people who remained there, who hadn't been sponsored out? A few possibilities were leaking out of Washington. One idea was to transport them to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Secretary of State Alexander Haig actually advocated for piling those who remained at Fort Chaffee onto a boat and then towing it into the port of Havana. At a Cabinet meeting, someone floated the idea of sending them all to Alcatraz. Another option was to relocate everyone to a decommissioned military base somewhere else in the country one in Maryland was considered, another in Texas. They even briefly considered a decommissioned Air Force base in Alabama - Selma, Ala. When the Selma mayor got word of this, he called the Cubans, quote, "misfits that nobody will take," end quote, telling the local paper, quote, "if they come here, we're going to flat out slap them in jail - they better bring their bail bondsman with them." Finally, the consensus was to send them to Glasgow Air Force Base in remote northeastern Montana, about 50 miles from the Canadian border. A Miami lawyer, when told of the plan, said that Glasgow was, quote, "the closest place we have in the United States to Siberia."


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Well, I want to get a breakdown of who's here and who isn't, but I want you to talk about these different trial balloons that keep going out on where people are going to be sent.

BRANTLEY: Journalists were eager to hear the camp director Barbara Lawson's take on the relocation plans. This is from a conversation Lawson recorded with a reporter doing a follow-up story on the camp.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: What's the latest now? Where - I think there's been mention of a place in Montana. I read a story in The New York Times that mentioned several places. What's all that about? I mean, are they all going to be moved to the same place or...

LAWSON: I have no idea.


LAWSON: I have to be very candid. I'm not trying to hide anything. You hear about Montana, and I don't know whether they want to make that into a rehabilitation camp or whether they want to make it into a permanent long-term camp. I just think there's so many unknowns. I'm lucky I still have hair. I thought I'd pulled most of it a while back.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: From the time I talked to you before, I detect a major swing in your mood - kind of almost a different personality in you. What has happened to you since May? Obviously, you know...

LAWSON: I don't want to read it in the newspaper. The Fourth of July, I pick up the newspaper and read that our United States government is considering sending these people back to Guantanamo. I mean, what kind of a country do we live in? I don't like to hear the United States of America talk about sending people back to Cuba like we're a bunch of Nazi fascists. I mean, I'm just - the whole mood in our country right now is what has me upset.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: I see. It's definitely a swing toward conservatism, a real far-right - rightist kind of attitude.

LAWSON: Do you warehouse people, or do you provide some sort of services so that we could eventually release them into our country and let them be gainfully employed? I'm telling you, we're at a standstill.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Are you a little bit - I know you're disappointed or shocked at the attitude that the public has toward not accepting. Can you understand why people don't want these people? Or is that...

LAWSON: Yeah, I can understand it. Just like we didn't want Poles, and we didn't want Italians, and we didn't want Jews. We didn't want all the other people that have made up our country. How soon we forget where we all came from.

BRANTLEY: When Lawson got wind of the plan to relocate the refugees at Fort Chaffee to Montana, she flew to D.C. to argue against it.

LAWSON: I think part of it is the numbers were so small that it's going to be like - who cares what we do? You know, let's just - let's sweep the problem underneath the carpet, and so then it becomes just bureaucratic. They're there. There's nobody that's an advocate for them. I mean, we've got a thing in our country that's very, very sick. I ended up going to the mat over this one, and it did not end well for me (laughter) I would say. I got fired over it. I got fired.

BRANTLEY: By the time Lawson left in late 1981, there were fewer than 500 Mariel refugees remaining at Fort Chaffee. And who were they? They were almost entirely single Black men. They had no family to take them in this country. Some had been sponsored out and sent back after a sponsorship breakdown, but they hadn't committed any crimes. And when you go through the internal memos about this time period in the Reagan archives, you see the administration casting about for options to house these final refugees. There are budgets of each proposed plan and memos back and forth about the pros and cons of each. The administration knew it had to close Fort Chaffee. One administration official even wrote of the concern that these camps promote, quote, "the appearance of concentration camps filled largely by Blacks," end quote.

Reagan's attorney general wrote that the closing of the camp, quote, "must be done in a way that is least politically costly to the administration." Over and over again in these documents from the Reagan administration, you see political considerations outweighing the welfare of the refugees left in the camp. And in the end, every single option that might have treated these men with dignity, that might have given them job training or continued to find sponsors for them was deemed too expensive. Each one would require too many resources, too many federal agencies, too much government. So they weren't transferred to Guantanamo or to Selma or to Glasgow, Mont. Instead, on January 21, 1982, President Reagan quietly signed an executive order transferring custody of the remaining Mariel Cubans at Fort Chaffee from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Justice. The very next day, flights began taking them from Fort Chaffee to the federal prison in Atlanta, Ga.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The feeling I get is that nobody cares. Nobody cares about them. LAWSON: You know, I think there's some real basic philosophical questions involved here. Are we a country who stands for freedom and democracy, helping our brothers? Or, you know, are - we've just gotten to the point where, everybody else be darned we're only looking out for ourselves. Are we going to keep people forever? That's the issue.


GRACE: When Ignatz Mezei was denied entry to the United States and no other nation would take him, he sat in the detention center on Ellis Island. He sued the federal government six times for release. And finally, in 1953, after he'd spent three years on Ellis Island, the Supreme Court issued a ruling on his case that would have far-reaching consequences for decades to come. In a contentious 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the federal government had the power to detain a noncitizen who'd been denied entry into the country, that the noncitizen had no right to a hearing on their exclusion, and that a noncitizen in such a position - denied entry into the United States and with nowhere else to go - was, quote, "no more ours than theirs." Among the thousands of documents we reviewed in the basement of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and in the Carter and Reagan archives, we found a lot of legal arguments about the immigration status of the Mariel Cubans - what to do with those suspected of having committed crimes in Cuba, what to do with those who can't find sponsorships, what to do, in short, with those the United States government wants to exclude.

BRANTLEY: And you know what else you find in some of those documents? The story of Ignatz Mezei. A memo from the general counsel of the INS spells out how the ruling in the Mezei case could apply to the Cubans. The memo says, quote, "it appears that under Mezei, detention could continue indefinitely."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So these people are in the custody of the attorney general of the United States. It's his decision and his determination that governs whether they should or should not be released. Those people are illegally in this country. They can, by law, be confined by the attorney general indeterminately.

BRANTLEY: That's next time on WHITE LIES.


BRANTLEY: WHITE LIES is reported, written and produced by us and Connor Towne O'Neill. Liana Simstrom is our supervising producer. Annie Iezzi is our associate producer. Robert Little edits the show with help from Bruce Auster, Keith Woods, Christopher Turpin and Kamala Kelkar. Our incredible score is composed and performed by Jeff T. Byrd.

GRACE: Emily Bogle is senior visual editor. Barbara van Woerkem is our fact-checker. We had production help from Pablo Arguelles. Our audio engineer is Maggie Luthar. Special thanks to Radiohead for the use of their song "The National Anthem," courtesy of XL Recordings and Warner Chappell music.

BRANTLEY: Archival tape in this episode comes from Miami-Dade College's Wolfson Archives, NBC, CBS, C-SPAN, the Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma and the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami Libraries.

GRACE: Special thanks to Lewis Reining at WTJU, Judge Jim Spears, Allison Mollenkamp, Amanda Moreno and Juan Villanueva at the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami, Emily Ward with Special Collections at the University of Arkansas Libraries, Erin Langford, the staff at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum and the staff at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

BRANTLEY: We are grateful for the work of Micah Ratner and NPR's legal team and Tony Cavin, NPR's standards and practices editor. Our project manager is Margaret Price. Irene Noguchi is the executive producer of NPR's Enterprise Storytelling Unit, and Anya Grundmann as NPR's senior vice president for programming and audience development.