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Hillsborough sheriff's unit teaches new immigrants basic U.S. rules

TAMPA — For Luis Enrique Sellera, leaving Cuba and getting to the United States meant a 21-year wait.

For Yusniel Coronado, a civil engineer in Cuba, it meant a plane ride to Ecuador and hitchhiking and walking through Mexico.

They both finally arrived in Tampa this month, with family waiting for them.

But they don't know the language, much less the laws.

So each week, they are schooled in the basic rules for recent immigrants, taught by Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Deputies Marilyn Alvarez and Carlos Cuevas.

The Sheriff's Office holds the classes as part of the Refugee Victimization Services Program. Begun in 2001 for Cubans and Haitians, it has grown to encompass the increasing numbers of immigrants from other countries.

And since the recession of the past few years, the program has seen more immigrants moving here because they couldn't find work in Miami.

The people attending these classes are refugees on the path to being here legally, Cuevas said. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, any Cuban can apply for permanent residence within a year and a day of arriving in the United States. That includes Coronado, a Cuban who traveled through Mexico.

The Wednesday classes that Sellera and Coronado attend are part of an orientation program with Lutheran Services Florida. Federally funded through the state Department of Children and Families, it has served nearly 11,000 people.

On a recent Wednesday, 22 people attended, mostly men, old and young. Each had a stack of pamphlets written in Spanish, including information on Internet safety for children and avoiding identity theft.

Cuevas, the deputy, asked whether everyone was Cuban. They were.

"You have rights," Cuevas said in Spanish. "You're not in Cuba anymore."

Law enforcement officers, he told the Cubans, are here to help. But sometimes immigrants may unwittingly violate rules that are basic to Americans, such as what to do during a traffic stop.

Unlike in the United States, it's customary in Cuba for a driver to step out of the vehicle and approach the officer's car.

Cuevas told them what to expect during field sobriety tests should they ever be stopped on suspicion of driving under the influence. He tells them to wear their seat belts. He explains what counts as domestic violence or child abuse, and that those incidents should be reported. And call 911 only for emergencies.

Some people took notes or asked questions: Is it okay to have parties and music playing past midnight? How many beers is enough for a DUI?

They shared snippets of their poor relationships with law enforcement in Cuba. But here, in a plain white room with no windows, they seemed comfortable as Cuevas spoke to them casually and made jokes.

Sellera, 38, who longed to come to America since he was 17, sat in the front row wearing a University of South Florida Bulls cap. Cuban police officers, he told Cuevas, stopped and searched him in the street without telling him why. He said he's relieved to be here, and the information from deputies makes him more comfortable.

"I come here with many desires to work," Sellera said. "And with a lot of anxiety."

Coronado, 26, took the class just three days after arriving in Tampa. A few days later, he said it has helped tremendously. He now has a Social Security number and has applied for food stamps. On Monday, he's taking a placement exam for English classes.

Deputies Alvarez and Cuevas said people from their classes are appreciative. Sometimes the deputies see them again when they're working.

"Most come here to make better lives for themselves," Alvarez said.

Alvarez remembers a Cuban man in his 40s who had a nursing job lined up, but couldn't get clearance to start work because someone in Chicago had the same name. She made some phone calls and helped him navigate through the red tape.

"It's a rewarding job," Cuevas said. "Eventually, they're going to be part of our community. They become very patriotic, very proud of this country."

At the end of each class, Cuevas asks those who want a driver's handbook in Spanish to walk back to his office with him for a copy. He wants them to know where to find him.

Ileana Morales can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or

Where to call

For more information about the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Community Outreach Division, which includes the Refugee Victimization Unit, call (813) 801-6736.

Hillsborough sheriff's unit teaches new immigrants basic U.S. rules 02/27/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 28, 2011 11:58am]
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