Media's False Comparison Births Obama's "Willie Horton"


On Sunday, the Miami Herald reported on the case of convicted felon Kesler Dufrene, a Haitian national who was the prime suspect in a triple murder committed after he was freed following the Obama administration's deportation stay to that country. Right-wing media are now using the case to attack President Obama and push the racially charged narrative that Dufrene is Obama's "Willie Horton." But the circumstances surrounding Dufrene's case cannot be compared to those of escaped murderer William Horton.

In a blog post calling attention to the story, Gateway Pundit's Jim Hoft accused Obama's "failed immigration policy" of "leav[ing] three more innocent people dead." Hoft wrote: "Thanks to the Obama administration's halt on deportations to Haiti last year three people are now dead, including a 15 year old girl." He added: "Can you say Willie Horton?"

But the facts behind the Horton and Dufrene cases simply don't match up. Horton had been sentenced to life in prison without parole but was granted a weekend furlough under a Massachusetts program. He did not return from his furlough and subsequently committed assault, armed robbery, and rape. Dufrene's release, on the other hand, was based on immigration law that predated the Obama administration and long-standing U.S. policy to temporarily stop deportations to countries hit by disasters.

It's important to realize what the right-wing media are calling for in saying that Dufrene is "Obama's Willie Horton." Horton is best known as the focal point of a campaign targeting Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis during the 1988 election that consisted of unadulterated race-baiting intended to scare voters.

According to the Miami Herald, Dufrene was ordered deported after being convicted of burglary; had his deportation held up because the Obama administration had suspended deportations to his native Haiti in the wake of the massive earthquake in that country; and was ordered released due to Supreme Court rulings preventing the indefinite detention of foreign nations who cannot be deported:

In February 2006, Dufrene was on probation for stealing a car when he was rearrested, this time for burglary. He was found hiding in a bedroom closet in a vacant house in Manatee County. Neighbors wrestled him down and held him until police arrived. Dufrene claimed he was cold and looking for shelter.

In July 2006, deputies again arrested him after a homeowner surprised him inside another Manatee County home. Five months later, Dufrene pleaded guilty to one of the burglaries and violating probation, and was sentenced to five years in prison.

In August 2007, records show, a U.S. immigration judge ordered him deported. He was released from state prison in September 2010, and handed over to immigration custody at West Miami-Dade's Krome Detention Center.

The federal government annually deported hundreds of Haitians convicted of felonies in the United States.

But after the devastating January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Obama administration announced it was indefinitely halting deportations to the country.

"Under binding Supreme Court precedent, ICE's authority to detain any individual is limited when the removal of that individual is not likely in the reasonably foreseeable future," the immigration agency's statement said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 and 2005 that foreign nationals who cannot be deported may not be held in detention longer than six months. Deportations resumed in mid-January 2011 -- three months after Dufrene was released from custody under ICE supervision.

The United States has long made it a practice to temporarily halt deportations to countries hit by natural disasters or other calamities. In 2005, for example, the Bush administration granted deportation stays to people from Sri Lanka and Maldives following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010 resulted in more than 200,000 deaths and displaced at least 1.2 million people.

During the 1988 presidential campaign, Republicans used Horton, a black man, to play on naked racial fears and portray Dukakis as soft on crime. As Slate's Timothy Noah explained in 1999:

Horton, you may recall, is a black man who, while doing prison time in Massachusetts for murder, escaped from a weekend furlough and committed a particularly brutal assault and rape. Dukakis hadn't started the state program that allowed prisoners like Horton, who were serving life sentences without parole, to take furloughs -- that would have been Dukakis' Republican predecessor as governor of Massachusetts, Francis Sargent.

But Dukakis, even after hearing what Horton did on his furlough, was resistant to ending the program, which the state legislature finally did after much crusading by a local newspaper. Horton's story was subsequently offered up by Vice President George Bush's campaign as evidence of Dukakis' softness on crime, and -- less directly -- of the Democratic party's excessive fondness for black people. (It was an ugly election.) Introducing Willie Horton to American political discourse would not seem to be something to be proud of.

A political action group later fashioned the "Willie Horton" ad using, as PBS described it, "a menacing mug shot of an African-American criminal" to further anti-Dukakis attacks. The ad, PBS continued, "was widely denounced as appealing to racial prejudices."

The PBS documentary, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, chronicles the life of Republican operative and campaign manager to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, Lee Atwater, who once said of Dukakis: "By the time I'm done ... people will think Willie Horton is his running mate." In the PBS film, former South Carolina state Sen. Tom Turnipseed stated of the Horton ads: "I think he was used primarily because he was black. Like Lee said before he died, you don't call them nigger, nigger, nigger anymore like you did 30 years ago. You know, you got to be more subtle than that. It wasn't very subtle at all to me."

In the end, however, even Atwater disavowed the ads. In 1991, The New York Times reported:

Friends said Mr. Atwater spent his final months searching for spiritual peace. The man renowned for the politics of attack turned to apologies, including one to Michael S. Dukakis, the Massachusetts Governor who was the 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee.

Mr. Dukakis was the target of a campaign advertisement about Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer who escaped from the Massachusetts prison system while on a weekend furlough and raped a white woman and stabbed her husband. The advertisement became a central focus of the 1988 campaign.

"In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard' and 'make Willie Horton his running mate,' " Mr. Atwater said in the Life article.

"I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not."

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