Cubans who can't be deported could end up detained in U.S.
Cubans with deportation orders are alarmed about a bill in Congress that
immigrant rights activists say could lead to indefinite detentions.
By ALFONSO CHARDY
Julio Muñoz, who arrived during the Mariel boatlift in 1980, spent more
time in immigration detention than in prison over drug convictions.
But he finally was freed when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that
Mariel convicts could not be held in detention indefinitely just because
they cannot be deported to Cuba.
Now Muñoz, like many other Cubans with deportation orders, has grown
alarmed about a new bill recently introduced in the U.S. Congress that
immigrant rights activists say could enable immigration authorities to
re-detain indefinitely Cubans with criminal records who cannot be
"If they detain me again until I can be deported, I'd rather kill
myself," said Muñoz, voicing a sentiment echoed by other Mariel refugees
interviewed at Camillus Health Concern, a clinic for the homeless and
people of low-income near downtown Miami.
"I would hang myself if it came to that," said Raúl Rodríguez, 53,
another Mariel refugee with a final order of deportation freed from
indefinite detention. "It's like if you put a little bird in a cage, it
dies of sadness."
Though there is no immediate prospect for the bill to become law, some
immigrant rights advocates say they are closely monitoring it because it
was filed by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the powerful House
Judiciary Committee and architect of 1996 laws that toughened
The Smith bill would essentially restore the ability of immigration
authorities to hold indefinitely convicted foreign nationals until they
can be deported, a power the immigration service lost when the Supreme
Court ruled in 2001 and 2005 that foreign nationals who cannot be
deported cannot be held in detention longer than six months.
While the Smith bill does not mention Cubans, activists say island
immigrants likely would be among the most affected if the law passes
because they make up one of the largest contingents of foreign nationals
who cannot be deported.
Smith's office, however, has a different view.
A staffer in the House Judiciary Committee that Smith heads said the
bill does not target all "nondeportable" Cubans, but "dangerous
nondeportable criminal immigrants'' whether they are Cuban or from any
other country. The staffer said "prolonged" detention would be reserved
for "murderers, rapists and child molesters," though the bill itself
does not list those specific crimes.
It refers to "aggravated felonies'' that under immigration law include
other crimes such as drug offenses. The staffer also said that the bill
would not be "retroactive," though immigrant rights activists said
language in the bill would allow immigration authorities to detain
foreign nationals even if their deportation orders were issued before
the bill is enacted into law.
Immigration advocates are in an uproar.
"This bill is so sweeping that it would result in thousands of harmless
immigrants being jailed for years – among them, asylum seekers and
torture survivors," said Susana Barciela, policy director for
Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
Ira Kurzban, a Miami immigration lawyer considered a national authority
on immigration law, said the Smith bill was an "attempt to reverse"
prior Supreme Court rulings.
Eduardo Soto, a Coral Gables immigration attorney, said the "most
disturbing" part of the bill is that it could deny bond to detained
immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings.
However, some immigration lawyers were skeptical that the Smith bill
could become law.
"It is an effort by Smith to get some publicity and derail the talk
about immigration reform which is the real issue," said Wilfredo Allen,
a prominent Miami immigration attorney.
Smith himself has cited as a reason for his proposal the case of a Cuban
convict accused of killing a police officer in Fort Myers after being
released from immigration detention because he could not be deported.
"In the early 1990s, Abel Arango came to the United States from Cuba and
began a life of crime in Florida," wrote Smith in an op-ed piece
published in The Miami Herald May 25. "He served time in prison for
armed robbery, and when he was released in 2004 he was supposed to be
deported. But Cuba would not take him back. As a result, Arango was free
to walk our streets."
On July 18, 2008, Arango shot and killed Fort Myers police officer
Andrew Widman. Other officers shot and killed Arango.
Widman's death caused an uproar in Fort Myers. The local media blamed
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for failing to deport Arango –
even though ICE officials explained that the law required his release
because he could not be deported.
As a policy, the U.S. does not deport Cubans to the island because there
is no democracy there, but Cuba also as a practice refuses to accept
deportees unless they are part of a list of 2,746 Mariel convicts Havana
agreed to take back in 1984.
All other deportable Cuban convicts, more than 30,000, have been freed
and placed on supervised release in light of the 2001 and 2005 Supreme
Court rulings prohibiting indefinite detention of foreign nationals who
cannot be deported.
As a result of the 2005 rulings, almost 2,000 Mariel convicts in
indefinite detention were released.
Among those released was Muñoz, 54, who arrived on April 30, 1980,
during the Mariel boatlift. Eventually, Muñoz ran afoul of U.S. law over
drug possession charges. After finishing his sentences, immigration
officials took him into custody and an immigration judge ordered him
Because Muñoz could not be deported to Cuba, he continued in detention
until the Supreme Court acted in 2005.
"Immigration kept me in custody longer than I was in prison," Muñoz
said. "I was in prison for periods of six months, eight months or nine
months at a time but immigration kept me for almost three years."
In 2005, Muñoz – like hundreds of other Mariel convicts in indefinite
detention – was released. Muñoz now lives under a permanent ICE order of
supervision that requires him to report periodically to ICE.
Interviews this past week with about a dozen Cuban convicts who have
been ordered deported revealed deep frustration not only with the
pending Smith bill but also with ICE's reporting requirements.
Concepción Ventura, 42, a Cuban who fled the island by sneaking into the
Guantánamo naval base in 1989, said hundreds of Cubans no longer report
to ICE because they have grown nervous about the possibility of being
detained or deported if they show up at the immigration office.
"Many Cubans who are required to report to ICE because they are under
deportation orders have gone into hiding," Ventura said.