Fabiola Santiago

U.S. denies citizenship to prominent Miami photographer, tells him he’ll be deported | Opinion

In a case that illustrates how far the Trump administration is willing to go to reverse six decades of Cuban immigration policy, a prominent Miami photographer has not only been denied U.S. citizenship, but is being threatened with deportation.

Delio Regueral, 55, has lived in Miami for 25 years. Like hundreds of thousands of Cuban nationals before him, in 1997 he became a legal resident through the Cuban Adjustment Act.

He is the well-regarded owner of Delio Photo Studio and a do-gooder who volunteers his time at cultural community events and served as vice president of an organization that helps children with autism.

On the walls of his photo studio on Coral Way hang evocative portraits of stars like jazz greats Arturo Sandoval and Bebo Valdés, local politicians, and scores of families marking milestones. Artful or commercial work, no job is too small. Passport photos, anyone? Corporate head shots?

“My family depends on me,” Regueral says. “If I were to be deported, it would be their destruction. We would lose the house in six months.”

The rest of his family — his wife and the two sons who arrived with him in Miami on a flight from Spain in 1994, now ages 31 and 25 — all became naturalized American citizens during previous administrations.

His 15-year-old daughter was born here.

So why is Regueral, the head of household, being denied citizenship — and told to show up in January before an immigration judge for a deportation hearing?

A Department of Homeland Security document dated Sept. 4 accuses Regueral of gaining admission to the U.S. by “fraud or willfully misrepresenting a material fact.”

But the practice the Trump administration is now labeling “fraud” — that he entered the United States with a visa waiver stamped on his Spanish passport and that he adjusted to residency as provided under the CAA as a Cuban — has been standard operating practice for tens of thousands of Cubans who have arrived via Spain and other countries.

People who are born in Cuba and have Spanish-born grandparents, particularly, are eligible for Spanish citizenship and passports. That’s how Regueral was able to flee Cuba in 1985. Many Cuban Americans have dual U.S.-Spanish citizenship.

“This is unheard of,” immigration attorney Wilfredo Allen said of a person like Regueral being put in removal proceedings. “This is creating terror, panic in our community.”

The Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans who are on U.S. soil who have been inspected and admitted or paroled at a point of entry to apply for residency one year and a day after arrival. People without criminal convictions have been routinely approved for decades.

Regueral became a resident during the Clinton administration in 1997 without any problems.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, as the USCIS was known then, didn’t have any issues with the fact that Regueral in 1988 had asked for asylum in Miami during a stopover on a return Madrid-Venezuela flight — and was denied.

Regueral left the United States voluntarily and returned to Spain, but as he says in a short biography of his art career, he yearned to live “in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

When his photo studio ventures in Spain and Venezuela didn’t pan out, he saw no alternative but to try his luck again in Miami. And so Regueral did what thousands of Cubans were doing: travel with his family with a visa waiver. And he was legally admitted.

So why the pushback now?

Is the Trump administration going to rescind the residency and deny the citizenship of all of the tens of thousands of Cubans who have come from Spain and third countries with a visa waiver? The same Cubans they approved for entry at the airport, making them legally eligible to adjust their status via the CAA?

“What they are doing to Delio, in a best-case scenario, is the result of an overzealous agent’s decision, and in the worst-case scenario, a new policy coming from the top to restrict further people adjusted with the CAA,” said Allen, who has known Regueral for 20 years.

Had Regueral not applied for citizenship some two years ago, prompting a review of his immigration and travel history, he might not be facing such dire consequences as removal proceedings.

“I’m being judged on one mistake,” he said, referring to his spontaneous and unsuccessful bid for asylum 20 years ago. “Does the rest of my life not matter? Does the breakup of my family not matter?”

Indeed, nothing is gained by the U.S. government’s taking away of a father, a family’s livelihood, and an artist from a community where he has been allowed to live — legally — for decades now.

But the larger question for the administration is this: Is the Cuban Adjustment Act — passed by Congress in 1966 and signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson — all of a sudden, at Trump’s whim, just a useless piece of paper?

It takes an act of Congress to do away with the CAA — not only a presidential desire to disenfranchise a sector of the Cuban-American community that is perceived to be more liberal than the 1960s historic exile.

Yes, this is the underlying motivation for cracking down on Cuban immigration now — and the reason why you don’t hear the Cuban American Republican establishment forcefully condemning drastic policy shifts.

Despite the sanctions and tough talk against the human rights-violating Cuban regime, the administration is undertaking mass deportations, stalling legal family reunification, leaving asylum seekers stranded in Mexico and other countries — and now, as recent high-profile cases show, denying naturalization to Cubans.

In a letter to DHS after the recent deportation of 120 Cubans on a single flight with the promise of more to come, U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Miami, expressed concern and demanded answers.

“In contrast to the rhetoric, your Department apparently now views Cuba as safe to return those who have sought asylum from Communism … On their face, these two positions are not compatible,” she wrote. “Either the Cuban government continues to persecute its own citizens under tyrannical rule, or the Cuban government has reformed enough to safely return those who fled to the United States without fear of retribution — not both.”

For 60 years, Cubans have found safe haven in the United States.

With each day, comes mounting evidence that the Trump administration is ending those privileges on every front.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”