They are teachers, engineers or farmers, all seeking freedom in the United States. But after an unexpected policy change and an end to special treatment that allowed the majority of Cuban migrants to remain legally in the country, more than 1,300 are now being held at detention centers across the country waiting for their fate to be decided by immigration judges.
“What I heard were stories of people who felt that they literally could not live in Cuba anymore,” said Wendi Adelson, executive director of the Immigration Partnership & Coalition (IMPAC) Fund, a Florida-based organization that raises funds for the defense of undocumented residents without criminal convictions.
“Many say that not even in their wildest dreams would they have imagined that the United States would treat them this way,” she said. “They thought that this was a country of freedom and this was what they came for, to live without the government having its boots on their necks — and now this?”
Adelson recently visited four detention centers in Texas — two in Laredo (the Laredo and Rio Grande detention centers); one in Pearsall (South Texas Detention Facility); and the fourth near Austin, which is only for women detainees (T. Don Hutto Residential Center) — to identify those in need of legal representation.
She met with 16 Cuban detainees, mostly men.
“Many said, ‘Look, I’ve never committed any crime. I’m not a criminal, I’m not a gang member. I’m just a teacher, a husband, a normal person.’ They are in a detention center for immigrants, but for them, it’s a prison,” the lawyer added.
On Jan. 12, just days from leaving the White House, former President Barack Obama eliminated the policy known as “wet foot, dry foot.” The policy effectively treated Cubans as political refugees, allowing those who arrived on U.S. soil, even without visas, to stay in the country and legalize their status. The unexpected announcement left thousands of U.S.-bound Cubans stranded in third countries, many in cities in Mexico along the Texas border, and even at Miami International Airport. Many had hoped that incoming President Donald Trump would reverse Obama’s directive, but it remains intact.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, does not specify the number of detentions or deportations that took place after Jan. 12, according to an official who spoke on background. But as of July of this fiscal year, 1,355 Cubans are in ICE custody. In March, there were 651.
“Many individuals who were arrested were caught in a legal limbo because they were in transit during the period when the wet foot, dry foot policy changed,” said Javier López, president of the Cuban American Bar Association (CABA).
“Legally, what happens to this individual who has left his country and was, for example, at Miami International Airport when the U.S. policy changed?” asked the lawyer. “It’s a new issue and that’s why these people need lawyers who can argue their cases because obviously the immigration system is very complicated.”
Other Cubans arrived too late and got stranded in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where they stayed for several months, hoping that Trump would push back the measure. Amid the initial confusion, there were reports of Cubans who were not allowed to seek asylum or were dissuaded by Border Patrol agents from doing so. Although the Mexican government decided to “legalize” the immigration status for 588 Cubans who were in that city in April, in late May, local media reported that most had already applied for asylum in the United States.
Despite the change in policy, Cubans — like foreigners from other countries — can seek political asylum at the border and can get a judge to hear their case if they can establish “credible fear” of persecution if they are returned to their country of origin. But the challenge for Cubans who arrived without documents after the policy change is navigating the complex immigration and asylum laws, many times without legal representation and while inside facilities that many perceive as a prison.
Cubans now join other immigrants in the challenging quest to be allowed to stay in the United States.
The chances of obtaining political asylum are getting smaller and are at the discretion of the judge presiding over the case.
The immigration court at the Krome Detention Center in Miami has a reputation for being one of the most difficult for asylum cases, with a grant rate of only 7 percent. In 2016, it awarded only 33 asylums and denied 465, according to a report prepared by the Department of Justice.
Aquilino Caraballo and Georgina Hernández, ages 67 and 64, experienced that odyssey. The Cuban couple lost their asylum case at the Krome court in April. Defense lawyers could not convince the judge that Caraballo, a small farmer, would be persecuted if he returned to the island. Had they arrived at Miami International Airport just a few hours before the new policy came into force — they were detained on Jan. 13 — they would have quietly been reunited with their two children, both of whom live in Miami-Dade.
Instead, the couple spent two months in detention before being deported on a commercial plane to Havana on May 26, ICE officials confirmed. So far through the month of July, ICE has returned 86 Cubans to the island, either deported or because they asked to return voluntarily to Cuba. In 2016, a total of 64 Cubans were returned.
Other Cuban migrants have had better luck.
“There were some who came before [the end] of wet foot, dry foot, but their documentation was ambiguous and in a couple of cases we could prove that these individuals arrived before the change,” López said.
CABA, through its pro bono foundation, has been offering support to Cubans detained at Krome who have no legal representation. Through one of its board members, the organization also got the firm Holland & Knight to assign a lawyer from its Texas office to work on cases there for free.
Likewise, IMPAC, an initiative of Miami billionaire Mike Fernández, is committed to raising funds to support other organizations such as the Americans for Immigrant Justice and Catholic Legal Services. IMPAC is in the process of finalizing details to have an attorney represent Cubans detained along the U.S.-Mexico border, said Adelson, the lawyer who visited several facilities.
But with 1,355 detainees in custody so far, these efforts may not be sufficient. Adelson said male detainees are in most need of legal representation.
“There is a different standard in different detention centers,” she said. “In Hutto, where women are held, when they pass their credible fear interviews, they are released.”
But that is not the practice for male detainees. “Women are not asked to post bond, but Cuban men have to pay $7,500” to be released, she said.
“Several people told me they have relatives in Hialeah and Miami but they do not have that kind of money, so they remain in detention” while a decision is made on their fate, Adelson said.
ICE declined to comment on the issue of Cuban detainees.
None of the Cubans who met with Adelson agreed to speak to a reporter, and access to them is restricted. The websites for several of the centers state that phone calls are prohibited. Trying to speak with a detainee requires that a message be left with contact information to return the call. But in order to do that, one needs the detainee’s personal data, including an entry number to the country known as the “alien” number. To conduct interviews, reporters also need a written consent from the detainee.
Adelson said the restrictions make it difficult for Cubans to stay in touch with their relatives.
“They have access to 45 minutes of sunlight. They are inside seven days a week. Some say they have lost weight, that they are not getting adequate medical treatment,” she said. “For them, it feels like jail.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres