Rodolfo “Rudy” Blanco came to the United States with his family as a 7-year-old in 1980 — part of the massive wave of immigration from Cuba known as the Mariel boatlift.
He grew up in the Keys, went to Coral Shores High School, moved to the town of Perry in Taylor County on the panhandle, started a home renovation business with his wife Shelly and had two children. His daughter serves on a Seattle, Washington-based United States Coast Guard cutter. His son works with his parents in the family business.
But as a young man in December 1997, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office deputies busted Blanco, now 44, with a small amount of cocaine. Possession of any amount of cocaine is a third-degree felony in Florida.
A few months after the arrest, Blanco, upon advice from his attorney at the time, pleaded no contest to two counts of attempting to sell cocaine. Prosecutors agreed to no jail time and a judge sentenced him to 12 months probation and community service.
What seemed like sound legal advice at the time came back to haunt Blanco in 2004, placing his immigration status in limbo for 13 years, and putting him on the constant edge of deportation until Monroe County Chief Judge Mark Jones vacated his 1998 sentence Tuesday.
“She did not know that the plea could send me back to the country my family fled from,” Blanco stated about his then-attorney in a “motion for post-conviction relief,” filed earlier this month in Monroe Circuit Court. “She informed me that I would never be sent back to Cuba because they are a communist country and have terrible human rights violations.”
But Blanco fell victim to world events. In 2004, while the United States was still reeling from the 9/11 terror attacks, the Department of Homeland Security behemoth was created in a thick atmosphere of heightened concern over immigration. Nevertheless, Blanco had been married to an American woman for nine years at that point and had two American children. He was looking to trade in his green card in for citizenship. He too wanted to become an American.
After submitting his original application to become a citizen, Homeland Security responded by revoking Blanco’s green card and he was ordered to be deported. The reason? His two prior “aggravated felonies” from 1997. In 2004, it would still be 10 years until the Obama administration normalized diplomatic relations with the Castro regime, so the United States generally did not deport Cubans back to their homeland. Instead, Blanco had to check in with Homeland Security once a year, which he did for the past 13 years
But a lot changed during that time. First, the aforementioned softening relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments. Second, the election of President Donald Trump and his tough-on-immigration policies. Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement has ramped up its deportation of immigrants with criminal records since Trump took office in January.
So, in May, Blanco once again checked in with Homeland Security as he had done many times over the years. This time, however, instead of going home afterward, agents placed him into custody and ordered him removed from the country. He was at first held at Wakulla County jail and then transferred to the federal Krome Detention Center in Miami-Dade County. Next stop. Cuba.
Blanco’s attorney Alex Morris argued his client’s deportation nightmare stems all the way back to the legal advice he received in 1998 when his lawyer convinced him to plead no contest to the cocaine charges.
“Mr. Blanco entered a plea not knowing that he would be deported from the United States to Cuba,” Morris wrote in the Aug. 23 filing.
Because of the issues he was having with Homeland Security, Blanco in 2006 appealed unsuccessfully to have his 1998 conviction vacated. The appeal was denied by Circuit Judge Luis Garcia, who was the prosecutor in Blanco’s drug case in 1998. Morris argued Blanco’s attorney at the time should have taken issue with this and demanded Garcia recuse himself from presiding over the appeal.
“A prudent lawyer would have and should have sought the recusal of Judge Luis M. Garcia. This is not to say Judge Garcia acted inappropriately,” Morris wrote in the motion. “However, there was and is an absolute concern that the presiding judge was in a position where a recusal was not only appropriate, but necessary. Counsel failed to determine the most simplistic of factors.”
Jones heard the case Monday and made his decision Tuesday. He agreed that Blanco received ineffective counsel in the drug case and appeal, a violation to his constitutional right to “effective assistance of counsel” under the Sixth Amendment. His conviction was set aside.
The Monroe County State Attorney’s Office agreed with Morris’ motion.
“The evidence is not around. The cops at the time are not around,” State Attorney Dennis Ward said. “We checked this and told the court we had no objection to the motion.”
Blanco is free and back with his family in Taylor County. The immediate threat of deportation is over, but he must now go through the immigration court system once again to get his legal permanent residence — or green card — status back. He could still technically be deported, but his attorneys say that’s not likely since his convictions were thrown out on constitutional grounds.