President Barack Obama’s order to normalize relations with Cuba has spread fear through the ranks of thousands of Cuban exiles facing deportation to the island.
Many of those who have never become U.S. citizens now believe their removal, a remote possibility before, may now be imminent. Immigration authorities say there are 34,525 Cubans with final orders of deportation and an additional 2,264 with pending removal cases in immigration court. Under U.S. immigration law, foreign nationals can be deported if they have a final order of deportation, meaning the order has withstood appeals and other legal challenges. Foreigners with pending cases in immigration court generally cannot be deported.
While U.S. officials say they have not changed policies barring deportation of most Cubans to the island, those assurances are small comfort for the people in the midst of proceedings or who have final orders of expulsion.
“I became worried the day they ordered me deported,” said Luis, a 73-year-old exile who in the 1960s participated in covert U.S. operations against the Fidel Castro regime. “But now, when the president in the White House wants relations with Cuba, my worries are much deeper.”
The majority of the 34,525 Cubans with final deportation orders received them after having been convicted for a serious crime. Luis spent two years in prison for a drug-related conviction in the 1980s.
Luis’s Miami immigration attorney, Grisel Ybarra, says she and other immigration attorneys are getting an increasing number of calls from Cubans who fear deportation because of a criminal record. Ybarra and other immigration attorneys said exiles in deportation proceedings or with final orders of expulsion should reach out to immigration attorneys as soon as possible to explore legal options.
In Luis’s case, for example, Ybarra is seeking to obtain U.S. citizenship. Under U.S. immigration law, foreign-born members of the U.S. armed forces can become citizens if they served during a designated period of hostility.
However, Luis did not receive any paperwork from the U.S. military, because his work was covert.
“That’s going to be the challenge,” said Ybarra.
Another case Ybarra is handling involves a prosperous Cuban businessman who can only be identified as Rey, 71.
Rey received a final order of deportation because in 1987 he was convicted on drug-related charges. He served 5 years in prison and 5 years probation.
Since then, Rey has rehabilitated himself, becoming a successful entrepreneur in South Florida.
Ybarra said her strategy is to seek the reopening of Rey’s case to try to persuade an immigration judge that her client has built “equities” since his conviction that would make him eligible to stay in the United States. These can include having a spouse and children who are U.S. citizens or owning a company with a several employees — two conditions that Rey satisfies.
Not all Cubans are facing deportation because of a criminal conviction, though. Miguel Romero, 85, was ordered deported because he entered the United States illegally.
Romero, who lived as an undocumented immigrant in New York between 1952 and 1957, agreed with immigration authorities to voluntarily leave the country. But a year after Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, Romero fled back to the United States, sneaking through the Mexican border.
Immigration officials discovered him, and eventually he was ordered deported. Romero has since worked at an advertising company in New Jersey and later as a house and building painter in Miami.
Romero recounted his story in the Coral Gables office of attorney Eduardo Soto. There, attorney Mario Urizar said part of the strategy to help Romero is to use a clause in immigration law that allows foreign nationals who have been illegally in the country since 1972 to apply for a green card.
The so-called registry provision enables foreign nationals who have been present in the country unlawfully and have no criminal record since Jan. 1, 1972 to request permanent residence without family or business sponsorship.
Urizar also believes that if deportations to Cuba were to begin, Romero’s lack of criminal record would move him toward the back of the line. Current immigration guidelines place terrorists and criminal convicts as priorities for deportation.
Romero currently must report regularly to immigration authorities and cannot travel outside Florida without official permission. He has a work permit and a driver’s license.
For now, U.S. deportation policies toward Cuba remain unchanged, despite Obama’s announcement.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has not changed its removal policies for Cuban nationals ordered removed,” said Barbara Gonzalez, ICE senior advisor to Latin America. “ICE operations remain the same.”
Gonzalez added that for now, the only Cubans being systematically removed to the island are those on a list of 2,746 people agreed upon by Washington and Havana in 1984. Of those 2,746 Cubans, most from the 1980 Mariel boatlift era, 1,999 have been deported to the island so far, Gonzalez said.
Separately, she added, 11 Cubans who did not arrive during the Mariel exodus have been removed to the island over the last 30 years.
Nevertheless, Obama’s announcement has sparked concern about how the policy shift will affect Cuban immigrants in general — not only those with deportation orders or in proceedings.
During Tuesday’s kick-off of the One Bullet Kills the Party campaign, Miami-Dade County Public Defender Carlos Martínez warned all foreign nationals, but especially Cubans, not to shoot guns in the air on New Year’s. If they get arrested, they could also wind up in deportation proceedings.
“There are Cubans who for a long time have believed there would be no deportations to Cuba,” Martínez told reporters. “But [it’s different] given what’s happening right now.”