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Wave of Cuban migrant detentions stoke fears that deportations to the island will resume

Magdalena Avila of Cuba (kneeling left) and others become emotional while waiting to be processed by US Border Patrol after illegally crossing the US southern border with Mexico on Oct. 9, 2022, in Eagle Pass, Texas. - In the 2022 fiscal year US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has had over 2 million encounters with migrants at the US-Mexico border, setting a new record in CBP history.    (Allison Dinner/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Syra Ortiz-Blanes and Nora Gámez Torres Miami Herald

MIAMI — When Dachel Caballero headed to an appointment at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Miramar earlier this week, the 30-year-old Cuban man thought he’d go back home to his wife and newborn child.

But once inside, Caballero knew something was wrong when officials stripped him of his belongings. He was then taken to Broward Transitional Center, a detention facility for immigrants in Pompano Beach.

Caballero is one of several Cubans who were detained under former President Donald Trump — and who now face the likely prospect of being sent to Cuba, as the Biden administration appears to be weighing resuming deportation flights to curb a mass exodus from the island.

As of Thursday, about 30 Cubans were in custody at Broward Transitional Center and were told that they would be returned to the island because the Cuban government has agreed to take them back, according to interviews with detainees, family members and lawyers.

“This hurts me a lot. I have a newborn child, I married my wife to make a life in this country,” he said.

Several detainees shared the same story: that they had crossed the US-Mexico border during the Trump administration and presented themselves to authorities. They spent as much as two years in ICE custody in Louisiana and other places, and had asylum claims refused. They were released at the beginning of President Joe Biden’s time in office under supervision because the Department of Homeland Security was not able to deport them to Cuba.

The Cuban immigrants told the Miami Herald they had work permits and Social Security numbers and made a life in South Florida, often as the sole breadwinners of their families, taking care of children and sick family members. Then last week, they said they received calls from ICE officials saying they had missed appointments and had to come into the office.

“We are stuck and desperate, without any answers,” said Carlos Trueba, one of the detainees, who had already spent 18 months in ICE custody in Arizona when he first came to the United States in 2019.

Trueba, who had taken his mother to a doctor’s appointment before being detained, said he and others in the same situation felt the U.S. government had deceived them because they did not expect to be locked up.

“Supposedly Cuba accepted us,” said Trueba, 31, “but we don’t even have a flight date.”

An uncertain future for undocumented Cubans

Breaking a decades-long tradition of accepting Cuban migrants as refugees, the Obama administration brokered a deal with Cuba’s leader Raúl Castro in 2017 to quickly send migrants who crossed the border back to the island. Deportation flights began under the Trump administration but stopped around March 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. They have not resumed because the Cuban government has refused to accept them.

But political pressures over the handling of the Southern border have pushed the Biden administration to seek ways to curb unprecedented numbers of migrants entering the country, including Cubans. Almost 200,000 Cubans have come through Mexico or in rustic vessels between last October and August, according to federal government data, as the economic and political situation on the island continues deteriorating.

In April, U.S. and Cuban officials renewed their commitment to the 1995 and 1996 migration accords, which established a 20,000 immigrant visa quota for Cubans every year. The State Department also said it will increase staffing at the embassy in Havana to resume processing all immigrant visas early next year in the Cuban capital.

On Wednesday, Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez blamed U.S. migration policies for the exodus but did not say if his government had agreed to accept the deportation flights. In a surprising move, his government recently accepted a $2 million donation from the U.S. Agency for International Development to aid victims of hurricane Ian.

The testimonies of the detainees suggest the flights might restart soon. ICE referred questions about the deportation of Cubans to the State Department. The State Department in turn referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security’s, ICE’s parent agency.

“We are all afraid”

The sudden detention of the Cuban migrants has sent shock waves among immigrants, families, activists and legal service providers in South Florida, as they demand answers from the federal government.

“They are all remaking their lives. Doing this to them again seems to me like incredible cruelty,” said Maria Bilbao, campaign coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee.

“We are extremely concerned that deportation flights to Cuba have been restarted, and this is a shock to families and is making people understandably fearful,” said Lily Hartmann, a human rights advocate at Americans for Immigrant Justice.

Immigration authorities have not said if the Cuban migrants detained fit the profile of the hardened criminals that the Biden administration had said it will prioritize deporting. The government considers a person’s criminal record, among several other factors such as community ties and immigration history, when it decides if it will place a person in immigration custody. Broward Transitional Center holds “short-term non-criminal and low-security detainees,” according to its private operator Geo Group.

Some of the Cubans interviewed said that ICE told them inaccurately that they had missed appointments.

Bilbao, who goes to the ICE office weekly to support people in immigration proceedings, said that frequently, when someone shows up for an appointment, ICE officials order them to reschedule via email. But those emails often go without any reply, said Bilbao. During the pandemic, she added, the government also canceled and rescheduled appointments. Several immigrants have also previously described similar scenarios to the Miami Herald.

“We always saw this as a possibility and we tell them to always save the emails they send and take a photo of the building on the day they go,” she said.

Maria Garcia Valdés, Trueba’s mother, is unable to work due to multiple health conditions, including breast cancer, osteoporosis and fibromyalgia. She also suffered a car accident last year and had titanium screws put in her neck.

“He takes me to all the chemotherapy sessions,’‘ she said of her son in detention. “He is my support since he arrived.”

Garcia Valdés, 59, had to go alone to chemo for the first time this week since she was diagnosed with cancer in March. Now, she is worried that Trueba will go back to a country where he was persecuted for protesting and that her 18-year-old son will have to leave school so the family can sustain itself.

In Cuba, Trueba says, the government already considers the detainees to be “gusanos,” or worms, a pejorative term towards those who oppose the Cuban regime, for having left for the United States.

“We are all afraid because we don’t want to go over there,” said Trueba.

Yudisleidy Molina, the wife of Caballero, the detainee who has a newborn child, said that her husband’s release after spending 24 months detained was an opportunity for the young couple to make a new life in the United States.

It was Caballero, who is studying for a career as an electrician, who kept their household afloat when Molina had to rest during her pregnancy because she faced the risk of miscarriage. Now, she’s taking care of their newborn on her own.

“This is like living a nightmare,” she said.