Haitian Repatriation Case Revisited

Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute Series Explores Legacy of Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, a U.S. Supreme Court Decision Allowing the Government to Forcibly Repatriate Haitians Intercepted on the High Seas

New York, September 25, 2013—Two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court shocked the human rights community by allowing the United States to forcibly return Haitians intercepted on the high seas without any determination of their refugee status, a speakers’ series organized by Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute will revisit the decision and the generation of advocacy it inspired.

Legal experts who were involved in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council and the related litigation will speak at Columbia Law School as part of the series, “The Legal Legacy of Sale v. Haitian Centers Council,” which kicked off Wednesday, September 25. The series will also include discussion of another prong of the litigation, which challenged the indefinite detention of more than 100 HIV-positive Haitians at Guantanamo Bay under the infectious disease exclusion policy in place at the time. That aspect of the case ultimately settled after a trial court decision, with the Haitians being allowed to settle in the United States.
The four events will feature experts who worked on the case:
  • Columbia Law School Professor and Human Rights Institute Co-Director Sarah H. Cleveland, former counselor on international law to the legal adviser at the U.S. Department of State
  • Center for Constitutional Rights President Emeritus Michael Ratner ’69
  • Yale Law School Professor and former legal adviser of the U.S. Department of State Harold Hongju Koh
  • Yale Law School lecturer and former director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project Lucas Guttentag
  • Yale Law School Professor Michael Wishnie
The June 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council held that neither the Immigration and Nationality Act nor the United Nations Refugee Convention limits the president’s power to order the Coast Guard to repatriate undocumented citizens intercepted outside U.S. territory. Justice Blackmun issued a scathing dissent in the case.
“The refugees attempting to escape from Haiti do not claim a right of admission to this country,” he wrote. “They do not even argue that the Government has no right to intercept their boats. They demand only that the United States, land of refugees and guardian of freedom, cease forcibly driving them back to detention, abuse, and death. That is a modest plea, vindicated by the Treaty and the statute. We should not close our ears to it.”
The case changed U.S. foreign policy, spawned satellite litigation, became the subject of numerous books and articles, and inspired a generation of human rights activists and scholars.  It also posed challenging legal questions with continued implications for human rights protection on Guantanamo and elsewhere today.