Some 40,000 migrants are being held in detention facilities in the United States, but policies for detaining migrants became accepted only after the rise of Cuban and Haitian migration in the 1980s, Ana Raquel Minian, a Stanford University history professor, writes in the New York Times. Before then, the idea of immigrant detentions had all but died out. In 1955, only four people were in immigration custody, Minian says.

“immigration detention has a short-lived and complicated history” that started with the Mariel Boatlift, in which 125,000 Cubans migrated to the U.S., touching off fears among many Americans. Previously, immigrants were released until their cases were resolved. The Cubans who had no families or sponsors in the country had no place to go, and a temporary detention facility became more permanent. According to Minian:

These exiles, many of whom were labeled “antisocial” but not accused of having committed any crime, were to remain in cages in the United States on an indefinite basis, with no prospects of being set free. Americans had come to fear these exiles so much that few of them protested their imprisonment and only a small number of legal workers tried to help them. The practice of detention was seen as necessary and normal.

The detention policy was extended to all Haitian immigrants who began arriving in 1981, and it was later expanded to all immigrants.

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America Didn’t Always Lock Up Immigrants