For a long time, it was much easier for Cubans to migrate to the United States than other immigrants. U.S. foreign policy was set up to give haven to people fleeing communism in our backyard. But that special status is rapidly changing.
Jesus Avila was in the middle of celebrating his future when, in a flash, everything he worked for was thrown into question. Late last year, Avila and his wife Vianeth had just gotten married in Miami when they took a honeymoon trip to the Dominican Republic. But while reentering the U.S., immigration officials pulled him aside for questioning about a cocaine possession case from 2012.
A few weeks later, he was called in to meet with immigration officials at an office building. Avila showed up with a stack of paperwork, expecting to quickly come back home. Instead, he was taken into immigration custody, and he soon ended up in detention in Key West.
“I should not be in here,” Avila told WLRN on a jailhouse call from the Key West Detention Center. “We went on our honeymoon and everything was beautiful and great and this was one big slap in the face from the country I’ve lived in almost my whole life.”
Avila moved to New Jersey from Cuba when he was eight years old. He became a permanent resident, but never took the time to get his full citizenship. Now he is part of a new reality of Cuban nationals becoming entangled in the U.S. immigration system.
Cuban immigrants have long been a protected class of immigrants in the United States thanks to a series of Cold War-era policies meant to give haven to people escaping Communism in this hemisphere. But various overlapping policy changes and particular circumstances have all happened one after another, leading to Cubans increasingly finding themselves in the same circumstances as other immigrants from places like Mexico, El Salvador and Haiti who are routinely deported for a variety of reasons that go from illegal entry to committing serious crimes.
In recent years the number of Cubans who have been deported has skyrocketed. In fiscal year 2016, a total of 64 Cuban nationals were deported back to the island, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Two years later, in 2018, that number had shot up to 463 -- more than a sevenfold increase.
“I love this country. I would die for this country. I would die for this country even though I’m not a citizen, but this is not right,” said Avila. “I speak better English than Spanish. You know, I know more about fricking the United States than I do of Cuba. I don’t know anything in Cuba, I don’t have family in Cuba, I don’t know anybody in Cuba.”
SPECIAL NO LONGER
The changes started when President Obama ended the "wet foot, dry foot" policy in the final days of his administration. Ever since 1995, the policy allowed Cuban nationals to stay in the US -- even if they arrived illegally by boat -- so long as they stepped one foot on solid ground. Even a slab of moist sand miles off the mainland would do the trick. Boaters intercepted at sea were sent back to the island.
When the Obama Administration announced the end of "wet foot, dry foot," it said one of the main reasons it was doing so was because the Cuban government had agreed to facilitate repatriations of Cuban nationals as a direct result of the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In fact, restoring diplomatic relations was touted as a major accomplishment by the Obama Administration, and deportations back to the island became smoother to carry out in the process.
Days after "wet foot, dry foot" was ended, President Trump came into office with an entirely different philosophy about immigration enforcement. The Obama administration prioritized deporting undocumented immigrants who committed violent crimes, something that was written into legal memos that guided immigration officers’ actions. Then President Trump came into office and issued his own memos stating everybody was a priority -- including Cubans with legal status who committed non-violent crimes years ago.
“Before, Cubans - even they had a final order of deportation -, they were not physically taken out of the country,” said Brazilian-American immigration attorney Tatiene Silva, a partner at Murray & Silva P.A. “Now that has changed. You do hear things you’ve never heard before, which is actual removal of Cubans back to Cuba.”
“We would never hear of Cubans being detained for a long time, or at all. And now it’s something that’s very common,” she added.
Santiago Alpizar is a Cuban-American attorney who frequently handles Cuban deportation cases. He estimated that “there are more now Cubans in detention facilities than any other time that I remember of.”
“Cubans are treated as any other migrant from any other part of the world,” said Alpizar. “The only thing that remains in place for Cubans is the Cuban Adjustment Act.”
The Cuban Adjustment Act was signed into law in 1966. It allows any Cuban national to apply for a Green Card after being in the US for a year and a day. But the petitioner has to arrive to the U.S. legally in order to apply, something that got harder to do with the end of "wet foot, dry foot" policy.
And then there’s an unplanned kink in the system: The suspected sonic attacks that have been reported at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. On its website, the State Department says that the embassy has “suspended almost all visa processing in Havana” as a result of the “drawdown in staffing” caused by the unexplained phenomenon. This means it’s gotten almost impossible for Cuban nationals who live on the island to get a visa to visit the U.S. and take advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act. (Technically Cubans with dual nationality from the European Union, for example, might still be able to visit. Likewise, Cubans can travel to a third country to apply for a U.S. visa but that’s another expensive hurdle for the average resident, who has extremely low salaries.)
Taken together, it means it’s gotten harder to immigrate to the U.S. And it’s especially difficult for a group that until recently had special privileges for getting into the country.
Serafin Moran felt this first-hand when he crossed the Mexico-U.S. border last year. Moran, an independent journalist who says he was kidnapped and jailed because of his reporting on the island, fled to Guyana before making his way to Mexico and ultimately the Texas border.
Upon applying for asylum at the US border, Moran was detained by immigration authorities in Texas and kept there for seven months.
“I had friends who I would talk to on the phone who said there was no way that I was still in detention 4, 5, 6 months in. People couldn’t believe I was in detention for so long,” said Moran. “The hardest thing was not seeing the sun for days and weeks at a time. That was very difficult for me.”
The non-profit Reporters Without Borders and other groups eventually got involved in Moran’s legal proceedings, and with their help he received political asylum last October. He now lives in a refugee shelter in Austin, Texas, and hopes to make it to Hialeah.
“If 'wet foot, dry foot' still existed when I crossed, this would have been a lot simpler,” said Moran. In fact, he would have nearly certainly been granted automatic parole and let into the country without being put into detention and having to prove his case before a judge.
Many Cubans still feel that they are a special case for immigration, even as it has now become normal for Cubans to find themselves in detention and in deportation proceedings.
“People are definitely shocked. I was shocked at first, because it was something that I never expected to change,” said attorney Silva. “The priority now is everybody. So I don’t see the numbers coming down anytime soon unless something changes.”
A SECOND CHANCE
Outside of Krome Detention Center, just west of Miami, there was the sing-song of birds chirping, pierced by a distant ring of gunfire from officers training. Inside this building, on the far-flung stretch of Miami abutting the Everglades, Jesus Avila was about to enter a hearing on his application that would let him stay in the US. If denied, Avila could be deported back to Cuba.
Two of Jesus’ former employers were in attendance, along with family and friends. The courtroom was more like a glorified wooden closet. Only seven people were allowed into the hearing, leaving many waiting outside. Avila walked into the room shackled, sporting a light blue jumpsuit. He looked back at his friends and tears streamed down his face.
Immigration Judge Adam Opaciuch mumbled a few words under his breath. At first, no one understood what was happening, but it soon became clear that he would allow Avila to stay in the country. “It’s a one time deal,” said Judge Opaciuch, audible now. If Avila gets arrested again he will not be able to reapply for relief.
The entire hearing was stunningly fast. No longer than four minutes from start to finish.
Outside the courtroom, his friends and family hugged each other in celebration.
“This last month has been a nightmare,” said Vianeth Avila, Jesus’ wife. “We didn’t have any idea if he was going to get free, but he’s out. And thank god. Everything is good. Everything went good.”
A few weeks later, Avila was at his home in Homestead. He was still shaken from the whole ordeal; in total, he spent 37 days in immigration custody before being released.
“Everyone was going crazy, they didn’t know what was gonna happen. If I was gonna get deported -- god knows. Anything could have happened,” he said. He remembered the moment in the courtroom when everyone slowly realized that the judge was going to let him stay in the country. “I just felt such a relief. I started crying like a kid. Crying and crying and crying, I was like thank you, thank you, thank you. My life was gonna be back to normal. My mom’s going to be okay, my wife is going to be okay, you know -- all of that went through my mind.”
Avila said he was lucky because his boss was understanding, and held his job for him while Avila was in detention. Two days after getting back home, he was already back in the office “to get my mind off that nightmare,” he said.
He said he was “young and stupid” for not applying to get his full citizenship earlier, but now he has an appointment to take his citizenship exam next week.
“I guess growing up in such a community that was all immigrants, I didn’t feel the need to become a citizen,” said Avila. “I was like -- for what? I’m a resident. What’s the difference? I didn’t see the difference.”