The number of Cuban nationals being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has sharply risen over the last few years, according official data from the federal agency obtained by WLRN through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, 1,271 Cuban nationals were booked into ICE facilities. During fiscal year 2018, a total of 8,514 were detained, the data shows. It adds up to more than a 700 percent increase in detentions over the two year period.
The new numbers confirm what several attorneys who handle Cuban immigration cases have noted anecdotally -- that more Cubans are winding up in immigration detention since the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy was ended by President Obama, and since Donald Trump came into office with different immigration enforcement priorities. The two things happened roughly at the same time.
“We would never hear of Cubans being detained for a long time, or at all. And now it’s something that’s very common,” immigration attorney Tatiene Silva told WLRN in March. Fellow attorney Santiago Alpizar suggested there are currently more Cubans "in detention facilities than any time I remember of."
Since 1995, the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy allowed Cuban nationals to stay in the U.S. - even if they arrived illegally by boat - if they managed to step at least one foot on solid ground. The policy was rescinded in the final days of the Obama Administration.
Cuban nationals still benefit from the Cuban Adjustment Act, which 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. No other nationality receives this benefit.
Simultaneously, the Trump Administration has changed priorities for immigration enforcement away from focusing on undocumented immigrants who have committed violent crimes to all immigrants -- including Cuban nationals with legal status who have committed non-violent crimes.
The vast majority of Cubans who are detained by immigration authorities are not deported, and are ultimately released. This group comprises people like Homestead resident Jesus Avila, who moved to the US from Cuba when he was 8-years-old, but who never got his full citizenship. Avila was detained last year after returning to Miami from his honeymoon in the Dominican Republic. Authorities cited a cocaine possession case he had from 2012.
“I didn’t know what would happen. I thought it would be a few days [in detention] and it ended up being 37 days,” said Avila.
While he was in federal detention, Avila feared that he would be deported back to the island, where he no longer has family or personal connections.
“I felt betrayed by my country,” said Avila. “I have two mortgages, I pay my taxes every year, so I don’t understand why I was incarcerated. I don’t think I deserved it.”
The total number of Cubans that have actually been deported back to the island has risen quickly under the Trump Administration as well. In fiscal year 2016, a total of 64 Cuban nationals were deported back to the island, according to ICE. Two years later, in 2018, that number had shot up to 463 -- also more than a sevenfold increase.
When Avila got out of detention, he put pressure on himself to complete his citizenship process. He took a citizenship test in April and passed. On Wednesday, he is becoming a U.S. Citizen at a naturalization ceremony in Miami.