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Cuban immigrants reunite with their daughters after two-year wait

Amid a flurry of media attention, Herminio Pe?a kisses the head of his daughter Amanda Pe?a, who hugs her mom, Aida Sanchez, and sister, Aida Suarez, as the family reunites Thursday at Tampa International Airport.
Amid a flurry of media attention, Herminio Pe?a kisses the head of his daughter Amanda Pe?a, who hugs her mom, Aida Sanchez, and sister, Aida Suarez, as the family reunites Thursday at Tampa International Airport.
Published Aug. 19, 2016

It's 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday.

Standing in the small bedroom his two daughters will soon share in his Largo apartment, Herminio Peña reminisces about the last time he hugged his children.

It was inside the hangar of Havana's José Martí International Airport, just before he and his wife, Aida Sanchez, boarded a plane to start a new life for the family in the United States.

He held his daughters Aida Suarez and Amanda Peña — then 18 and 10 — close and with a whisper assured them they'd be together again in a few months.

That was July 24, 2014.

"It's been difficult," Peña said, standing in that bedroom on Wednesday. "I miss them."

A little more than 31 hours later, they'd be reunited.

• • •

It's 4:35 p.m. Thursday at Tampa International Airport.

The Miami flight taking the daughters on the final leg of their journey from Cuba to their parents is scheduled to land in 14 minutes.

Their mother stands by herself in a corner and through the windows watches a blue shuttle taking passengers from their gate to the terminal.

As the passengers exit the shuttle, Sanchez, nervously fidgeting with her black-and-white-striped dress, scans their faces, as though hoping her daughters, now 20 and 12, arrived early.

When the shuttle cruises back away from the terminal, Sanchez sighs, clutches her purse to her chest and continues to wait.

"I wanted to give them a better life," Peña told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday. "This was the only possibility."

A journalist for a magazine published by Cuba's Roman Catholic Diocese of Pinar del Río, Peña often wrote articles critical of the communist government.

He claims that on multiple occasions, he was jailed for periods of 24 to 48 hours and upon release ordered by police to cease penning confrontational stories.

In 2014, the U.S. government granted his family political asylum. But between the exit fees Cuba charges and plane tickets, it cost more than $1,000 per person to relocate to the United States.

Peña earned $40 a month. His wife made less as an employee of the Cuban government that pays an average salary of $25 per month.

They could not afford to move all four family members at once.

So it was decided the kids would live with Peña's mother in Pinar del Río while the parents earned the needed money in Tampa.

It took them just a few months to do so.

But by June 2016, the daughters were still waiting for permission from the U.S. and Cuban governments to make the move.

Then U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Pinellas County offered assistance.

"To sit across from a father and see the tears in his eyes as he says he hasn't seen his daughters in two years is tough," Jolly said. "I told him, 'We are going to get your girls home to you.' "

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On June 25 and again on July 6, Jolly personally called the U.S. State Department and Citizenship and Immigration Services to inform them of his constituents' situation. By mid July, the children were approved to leave Cuba and come to the United States.

"I needed to elevate the importance as a member of Congress," Jolly said.

The holdup was on the Cuban side, Jolly said, though he does not know the reason.

No matter, Jolly said, "Now the family can begin their new life together."

Peña says he and his wife earn more in a day than they did in three months in Cuba.

He is a maintenance engineer at a Clearwater hotel and Sanchez is a pregnancy counselor.

"I came here with nothing," he said Wednesday. "Now I have many things."

• • •

It's 5:15 p.m.

The daughters exit their airport shuttle and immediately spot their mom and dad.

Walking arm in arm, the daughters, tears streaming down their cheeks, slowly make their way toward their parents.

When they get within a few feet, they stop for a moment.

And then, they lunge forward — Suarez into the mother's arms and her sister into the father's.

Peña lifts his daughter off the ground, her open-toed tan shoes dangling as she presses her face into his chest.

• • •

It's Wednesday.

The daughters' bedroom is spartan. It has basic furniture and no wall art. The mattresses even remain in plastic coverings.

Peña prefers to let the girls decorate the room.

He says he asked them a week ago if they wished for anything to be waiting for them when they arrived. Their reply — stuffed animals, new pants and chocolate.

With a chuckle, Peña says, "Whatever they want."

An earlier version of this story provided incorrect employment information for Aida Sanchez.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.