Former President Bill Clinton faced his own refugee problems when he tried to prevent Cuban refugees from settling in Arkansas in the 1980s.
Clinton, serving as the governor of Arkansas, protested President Jimmy Carter’s orders to house Cuban refugees in his state. Then-Cuban President Fidel Castro faced a bad economy in the country. Because of the country’s economic problems, he allowed 125,000 Cubans leave and go to America.
Carter, who at the time said Americans must welcome the refugees with “open arms,” told Clinton Arkansas’s Fort Chaffee should hold some of them.
Fort Chaffee had been used as a training and prisoner of war camp during World War II, holding almost 3,000 German POWs. In the late 70s, the fort served as a place to process Southeast Asia refugees and connect them with American sponsors.
This time, Carter ordered Clinton to use it to house almost 20,000 Cuban refugees.
Publicly, it seemed that Clinton was in favor of the idea, telling Arkansans that the country “must accept our responsibility as the leader of the free world.” In private, Clinton objected to the idea and tried to get around it.
He suggested to the White House that the Cubans be screened before entering the U.S. Those who did not pass screening could be housed elsewhere, he proposed.
“Sure there is. We still have a base at Guantanamo, don’t we?” Clinton said in his memoir “My Life.” “And there must be a gate in the fence that divides it from Cuba. Take them to Guantanamo, open the door, and march them back into Cuba.”
The White House dismissed his proposal and sent 20,000 refugees to Arkansas by May 20, much to the dismay of the locals. About six days after the refugees arrived, a “couple hundred” escaped from the fort and walked the streets chanting “Libertad! Libertad!”
Clinton spoke to Carter and “demanded that someone be given authority to keep the Cubans on the base.”
Lynn Merechka, a former guard at Fort Chaffee, spoke on the Travel Channel about the dismal conditions at the fort.
“Some of these guys were in prison from the time they were 12 years old. And that’s all they knew was prison life. They had American people who would sponsor them to get them a job, a house, stuff like that,” Merechka said. “Once they figured out they weren’t going to leave, some of them got kind of desperate, saying ‘Hey, I just traded one prison for another.”
According to Merechka, there were fights almost everyday and stabbings were a regular occurrence.
One thousand Cubans rioted and escaped the fort June 1, 1980. They battled with the National Guard and State Police; in the end, 62 refugees had injuries and police arrested another 46.
Carter promised Clinton that he would not send more refugees after the riot, but a couple of months later, he called to inform Clinton that more refugees would be coming.
Clinton asked for them to be placed elsewhere and exploded on the White House personnel who gave him the news.
“You’re fucking me. How could you do this to me? I busted my ass for Carter,” Clinton yelled. “You guys are gonna get me beat. I’ve done everything I could for you guys. This is ridiculous. ”