Immigration officials deported 120 Cubans on a single flight last week — one of the “largest” Cuba repatriation missions in recent history.
Last Friday’s U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement charter flight from New Orleans to Havana was one of many to come, two federal sources say, noting that officials have been quietly ramping up their efforts to detain and send undocumented Cubans back to the island.
The targeted deportation of Cuban nationals is just a small piece of the Trump administration’s plan to empty out the country of undocumented immigrants, though the successful removals are the fruit of an agreement signed by both the U.S. and Cuban governments under former President Barack Obama in his last days in office.
“The government is trying to deport as many people as they can regardless of their legal claims,” said Randy McGrorty, a longtime Miami immigration lawyer who serves as executive director of Catholic Legal Services, which provides free representation for low-income immigrants.
McGrorty represents a Cuban national who was recently detained at the southern border. He was supposed to be on the ICE flight to Havana but was taken off at the last minute after a paperwork glitch. “South Florida should be up in arms,” he said.
It’s still unclear whether the people on the Havana flight consisted of recent arrivals, or people who have illegally remained in the country. However, ICE sources say the majority passed so-called “credible-fear interviews” that they faced persecution if returned, but were not represented by attorneys.
The migration accord — or “Joint Agreement” — dated Jan. 12, 2017, mandates that Cuba has to accept all Cuban nationals that enter the U.S. as of that date, or who are discovered to have remained in the U.S. illegally.
“The United States of America shall return to the Republic of Cuba, and the Republic of Cuba shall receive back all Cuban nationals who ... are found by the competent authorities of the United States to have tried to irregularly enter or remain in that country in violation of United States law,” the document says.
The international deal is the same deal that terminated “wet foot, dry foot” — a decades-old policy that allowed Cubans who arrived on U.S. soil without visas to remain in the country and gain legal residency.
“With the charter flight’s high number of removals, [ICE’s Miami Field Office] contributed ten special response team operators to ensure adequate mission security onboard the flight,” ICE said in a statement Thursday. “The large removal charter is made all the more significant given Cuba’s longstanding status with respect to accepting the return of Cuban nationals ordered removed from the United States and abiding by key provisions of the U.S.-Cuba Joint Statement. Cuba has a long history of being deemed an uncooperative country.”
When asked for a breakdown of the states the Cuban nationals lived in or were detained in, ICE told the Miami Herald to file a Freedom of Information Act request, a process that could take months or even years to get a response.
Over the years, special privileges for Cubans have withered away. The White House has tightened restrictions on travel to Cuba, allowed lawsuits in U.S. courts against anyone that profits from Cuban properties seized by the Castro government and slapped sanctions on cargo ships that deliver Venezuelan oil to the island.
South Florida immigration attorneys say they’ve seen a significant increase in Cuban deportees and yet no major changes in the “communist Castro regime, a government that is based on the persecution of its own people.”
“Let’s see what happens to them upon arrival,” McGrorty said. “Are they going to have access to employment, a place to live? Are they going to have benefits that the other Cubans have? Are they going to face persecution?”
Immigration experts believe some Cuban nationals are more at risk of apprehension than others: people with criminal records or who enter through the southern border, as well as people who entered the country during the Mariel boatlift in 1980 — a mass emigration of Cubans who traveled from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor to the United States — as mentioned in the migration accord.
“The Republic of Cuba shall accept those individuals included in the list of 2,746 to be returned ... provided that they are Cuban nationals who departed for the United States of America via the Port of Mariel in 1980 and were found by the competent authorities of the United States to have tried to irregularly enter or remain in that country in violation of United States law,” the document says. Who is on the list, and whether those on it have been sent back, has not been made public.
As of late April, more than 37,000 Cubans in the United States are facing orders of removal for criminal convictions or immigration violations. Most of those are living freely under orders of supervision, which require them to check in at least once a year.
But not even the people who unfailingly check in as required are being spared, attorneys say. Two South Florida immigration attorneys told the Herald they have clients, who have lived in Miami-Dade and Broward for decades, currently sitting in Florida detention centers after being arrested while complying with their attendance order at ICE’s Miramar office.
The attorneys, who asked not to be named in fear that it could jeopardize their clients’ sensitive cases, said the men, who both have past criminal convictions, arrived in Miami during the Mariel boatlift. They are both currently awaiting a decision to be made by Cuba on whether its government will accept them back.
Despite the agreement, Cuba still has discretion to accept or reject Cuban nationals, specifically those that immigrated to the U.S. before the migration accord was signed in January 2017. Cuba has 90 days to accept or reject taking back one of its citizens. If they are not accepted, ICE has no choice but to release the person back into the community under an “order of supervision,” where they would have to check in as many times as the government asks them to.
The fact that the Cuban government actually accepted large numbers of Cuban nationals last week has shocked many in the Miami immigration community.
“The fact that the U.S. didn’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba is what made Cubans largely immune from deportation. However, that has now changed. Cuba is actually saying ‘yes’ and that should be shaking up the Cuban community like right now,” said Tammy Fox-Isicoff, who sits on the board of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Experts say Cuba has historically refused to accept Cuban nationals because of their anti-Castro political views. Another reason: The influx of older Cubans with possible healthcare needs could cause a strain on the country’s economy.
“But that has all changed — everything has changed,” said Miami immigration attorney Juliana Lamardo. “Cuba is welcoming these people with open arms. Before, there used to be what we called a ‘secret blacklist,’ where maybe two or three Cubans were deported, and nobody found out. But now? Now we’re talking entire airplanes. Something has changed the mind of the Cuban government, we just don’t know exactly what.”
Lamardo says she has recently represented five Cuban nationals whom were all accepted by Cuba. Her clients, who all had criminal records and lived in South Florida for several decades, were arrested during their annual check-ins with ICE and were ordered deported. One man had eight U.S. citizen children.
“And deported they were,” Lamardo added. “People that Cuba once rejected are now being accepted. Doesn’t matter how long they’ve been in the U.S.”
Chimed in Fox-Isicoff: “These deportations should be a sign that this is an opening of a door that will start the normalization of migration to Cuba. One day Cuba could be just like any other country.”
Last month, the Herald reported that there were roughly 40,000 migrants waiting their turn along the southern U.S. Mexico border and that 20,000 immigrants have been returned from the United States since June, when it implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols accord with Mexico, according to Mexico’s National Immigration Institute.
The largest number of asylum seekers right now are Cubans, followed by Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, records show. Since September 2018, more than 16,000 people have been detained as they tried to cross the Rio Grande illegally or applied for asylum at border crossings — more than twice the number from the previous one-year period.
The number of Cubans deported by the U.S. government to the island also rose, from 160 in the first year of the Trump administration to 743 this fiscal year.
— Herald Staff Writer Monique O. Madan wrote this story. Herald Staff Writers Mario Penton and David Ovalle contributed to this report.