Cuban defectors' plight raises ire and concerns
BY ELAINE DE VALLE
First came a lone woman. Early in August, a 21-year-old psychology student from Cuba who defected during a Catholic conference in Toronto took a taxi to the Peace Bridge and walked across to Buffalo, where she surrendered to U.S. immigration authorities.
The next day, five more Cuban defectors from the church gathering crowded into a taxi, rode to the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls and walked across, where they also surrendered.
Eleven days later, three young doctors from the Cuban Catholic delegation -- one of them carrying his medical certificate from the island nation -- were dropped off by a cabbie at the Rainbow Bridge and were taken into custody.
All thought they were stepping into freedom.
But even though the Immigration and Naturalization Service ruled
that all nine had a reasonable fear of persecution if they were returned
to Cuba, the agency denied
them parole and has held them in an INS detention center and two county jails in New York -- some of which house violent criminals.
Relatives in New Jersey, Florida and Michigan have hired a lawyer
and written letters urging their release; so have U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
and the bishop of
Normally, Cuban refugees who arrive in South Florida are released on parole within 48 hours.
''If they're not a security risk or terrorists or have a criminal
background, they are paroled to prepare for their asylum claims,'' said
their attorney, Stephen Tills of
But what's commonly referred to as the wet foot/dry foot policy in South Florida -- Cubans caught at sea are typically repatriated -- has little resonance in Buffalo, where the arrival of a Cuban defector is almost as rare as a warm breeze off the Gulf Stream.
Buffalo INS officials have deemed the Cubans deportable.
''They are returnable to Canada,'' said Winston Barrus, deputy district director.
Family members are dumbfounded.
''They have her in a prison with common criminals -- even murderers,'' said Nicolas Ramos, whose niece, 25-year-old Letty Valle Ramos, has been at the Erie County Holding Center since Aug. 13.
''We are all so confused,'' Ramos said. ``First, they told us it would be quick. Then, no. I am very disoriented.''
Tills thought it was a slam-dunk case, in part because two other Cubans with the same religious delegation were granted parole after crossing over the same border.
The INS, however, considers these nine Cubans a flight risk.
On what looks like a form letter signed by Barrus, there is an X next to the reason that parole was denied: ``Based on the particular facts of this case, including manner of entry, INS cannot be assured the subject will appear for immigration hearings or other matters as required.''
Tills said the only difference in their manner of entry is the
taxi. The first two Cubans were driven across the U.S. border by relatives.
They have already resettled in
Miami and Tampa.
Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman in Washington, said he could
not speak about any specific cases but that, generally, two factors determine
whether a refugee
should be released -- risk of flight and endangerment to the community.
SUBJECT TO LAWS
''Flight risk is always a serious concern,'' Strassberger said.
``Not every Cuban is released immediately when they arrive, [although]
the majority get released very
quickly. Someone making an unlawful entry into the United States is subject to the laws regardless of the country they come from.''
But Cuban-American legislators and activists say the law is on the refugees' side.
''The laws are there to protect those who have a well-founded
fear, and [the defectors] have established a credible fear. The law says
release them,'' said Maria
Dominguez, executive director of St. Thomas University's Human Rights Institute.
The nine cannot be deported to Cuba, but they could be returned to Canada, Barrus said.
''They've never entered the country, so they're still considered
to be at the border,'' Barrus said. ``If a judge decides they are not eligible
for asylum, they are
returnable to Canada.''
He said INS policy gives district directors the discretion to grant parole on a case-by-case basis.
''Sometimes it's a matter of available detention space,'' Barrus
said. ``Here in Buffalo, we don't get as many credible fear applications
as you may get in other
He said the INS needs more information about the refugees, ``who they have here and who would be responsible for them to appear.''
Tills says eight of the Cubans have relatives in the United States who have agreed to sponsor them. The ninth, an orphan who was raised by priests, is being sponsored by the family of one of the others.
Several South Florida relatives say they have flown to Buffalo and provided affidavits of support to the INS.
They have written letters to the district director, M. Frances Holmes, and President Bush. Buffalo's own bishop has written Holmes on their behalf.
''These young Roman Catholics from Cuba . . . did not attempt
to enter the United States illegally, but requested asylum at the port
of entry,'' the Most Rev. Henry
``I ask that you act expeditiously to approve their request to be paroled. . . . These young people are not criminals requiring detention.''
Ros-Lehtinen has appealed to Bush, Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich and INS Commissioner James Ziglar on the detainees' behalf.
''It makes no sense to keep them detained,'' Ros-Lehtinen told The Herald.
``There is no doubt in their cases. This is just causing great economic hardship and emotional tolls on their families.''
Families in South Florida, where Cubans are typically paroled within 48 hours, can't understand what is happening.
Norma Lam's nephew, Julio Lam Salazar, 25, calls her Westchester home collect almost every evening from the Erie County holding center, where he is being held with the general prison population.
''He is surviving. But he is afraid,'' Norma Lam said. ``There is a bad element there. There are decent people, but there are some who he is afraid of.''
Her nephew, a doctor from Pinar del Rio, spends most of the day reading the Bible, Lam says.
`JUST A BOY'
``He is just a boy. He has never been in trouble for anything. He is a doctor -- graduated fifth in his class.''
Another aunt went to a hearing in Buffalo and broke into sobs when she saw Julio Lam brought into the courtroom in handcuffs.
''He was very sad. He never imagined he would be jailed here for wanting to be free,'' Norma Lam said. ``In Miami, they come, and at night they are at home with their families.''
''It's an injustice,'' said Maria Elena Diaz, whose niece, Marieta
Diaz Rodriguez, has been held at the Orleans County Jail for more than
a month. She said her niece
called the day that parole was denied. "She was hysterical.
''There is no reason to hold her or any of these young people.
They all came with the Catholic Church. They are doctors and dentists and
students. They turned
themselves in. They all have family responding to them,'' Diaz said.
'We figure immigration said, `Wait a minute. If we do this, we open the floodgates for Cubans through Canada.' ''
Deterrence could be a factor, St. Thomas' Dominguez said.
''There has definitely been an about-face. Cubans who cross the border . . . are being detained, and they are being detained for a long time,'' Dominguez said.