Debate rages over the deportation of Mexicans, Hondurans and Haitians, or the fate of the Dreamers if the U.S. Congress does not offer an immigration solution. But there is a less well-known group of would-be immigrants facing deportation: Cubans.
Although the Cuban Adjustment Act affords them some protection, more than 37,000 Cubans in the U.S. currently have deportation orders.
"Most of them have a criminal record," explains immigration lawyer Grisel Ibarra.
Dozens of Cubans with a criminal history show up every day at an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) office in Miramar, just north of Miami. Under the sun, in the parking area, they wait an average of four hours to see an official who must certify that they complied with their attendance order.
Rolando Suárez, 62, originally from Matanzas, Cuba, arrived to the United States in 1981. Seven years later he committed a crime that sent him to jail, complicating his immigration status.
For 25 years Suárez has made his obligatory annual visit to the ICE center. Even though he knows that his deportation order is valid, he says he is not afraid.
"I'm not worried. They won’t deport us. In order for a mass deportation (to Cuba), there has to be a change in Cuba’s government," he says.
Immigration lawyer Santiago Alpizar explains that there is no agreement to enforce deportation between Cuba and the U.S., which makes it difficult to deport Cubans in large numbers. "As Cuba does not respect human rights, and there is evidence that it has broken international conventions against torture, it's difficult to send Cubans back to the island massively," says Alpizar.
However, Alpizar says that those who have a deportation order should be concerned. "That does not mean that for individual cases it won’t apply," he emphasizes.
In fact, according to an annual deportation report published by ICE, 160 Cubans were deported in 2017, a figure 150% higher than the previous year, when 64 were deported.
Suárez says it's unlikely he'll ever be sent back to Cuba because he has been in the U.S. for 37 years. He also believes that the Cuban government of Raúl Castro would not accept him.
More than a thousand Cubans in ICE custody
Julio Alvero spent five months and eight days in ICE's Broward Transitional Center. He was arrested because he entered the United States after the sudden elimination in January of the so-called 'dry foot, wet foot' policy, which gave Cubans special immigration rights to enter the United States without a visa or other documentation. Under the policy, as long as they reached U.S. soil (dry foot) and were not intercepted at sea (wet foot), they were allowed to remain in the United States and apply for residency.
The number of Cubans who remain in immigrant detention centers in the U.S. has been growing since the elimination of the 'wet foot, dry foot' policy. In March there were 651 Cubans in ICE custody; in July that number rose to 1,355, and today it exceeds 1,600, Univision News has learned.
Alvero went through three trials, but when judges ordered his deportation Cuba, the country did not approve his return. So he was released.
Cuba has 90 days to accept or deny the deportation of one of its citizens. If they are not accepted, the individual can be released and request asylum under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
Immigration lawyer Willfredo Allen explained that the Cuban Adjustment Act still applies if the person was born in Cuba, made a legal entry to the U.S. and has a minimum stay of one year and one day in the United States.
Alvero, 52, says that during the time he was imprisoned he never witnessed the deportation of any Cuban. "I only saw one that left voluntarily," he said.
The 'bad hombres' of Cuba
Of the 37,218 Cubans who have deportation orders, around 29,000 have a criminal history, and the remaining 8,000 face immigration problems only.
Alpizar doubts that those with immigration issues are being deported. He says that in most cases they have committed crimes or a series of misdemeanors.
"They have usually had unruly social behavior, such as living on the streets, using drugs, and those who are known as vagrants."
While waiting at the immigration center to comply with his attendance regimeJean Beltrán admits he has committed "many crimes." Aged 38, he arrived in the U.S. 14 years ago. He was released from prison only one month ago, after serving a three-year sentence. He has no job and is not worried about being deported to the island.
"I have to come once a month to sign here, and I'm not nervous. When my sentence ended, I told them that if they were going to deport me, they could send me on a plane right away. But Cuba wouldn’t accept me, so they set me free," he said.
All those interviewed by Univision News outside the ICE center in Miami agree on one thing: none feel nervous when visiting ICE, nor are they afraid of deportation.
"I don’t think about that, but if they send me, I'm leaving, there's no option. If I have to pay for my mistake, I will do it," said Nelson Cordobés, a Cuban who has been in the United States for 25 years and committed a crime in 2006 for which he was sentenced to five years in prison.
Santiago Pérez has had a deportation order since 1994. After 23 years he doubts he will ever be deported. "I'm not afraid, if I have to go ... but it doesn’t bother me now," he said.
Nor is Jean Beltrán concerned. "If they send me with nothing to Cuba it's the same as arriving in the U.S. with nothing, we already did it once. Wherever they release a Cuban, we manage to get by. Even in Antarctica we'd sell refrigerators to the Eskimo," he said.
Almost a year without 'wet foot, dry foot'
According to the Department of State, after President Barack Obama eliminated the 'wet foot, dry foot' policy on Jan 12, irregular immigration among Cubans reduced by 64%. In 2017 the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 1,468 Cubans who attempted to reach the U.S. by sea. In 2016 that number was 5,396.
"Without a doubt, this year the flow has substantially reduced," says Alpizar.
José Antonio Batista was the last Cuban who managed to cross the U.S. border at the Laredo, Texas crossing point before the termination of the 'wet foot, dry foot' policy. He still gets emotional when he recalls that moment.
"I was very lucky, I can say it's the second happiest moment of my life after my daughter’s birth, the time I've spent in the U.S. has been wonderful," he told Univision News from Kansas City, where he settled and started a new life.
But not all Cubans who left the island have had the same fate. Most of those who have been able to enter the United States after Jan. 12, have been arrested for immigration problems, and join the list of those facing deportation.
"It makes me very nostalgic to think about those who were left behind and could not come across when there was still 'wet foot, dry foot,'" says Batista, who respects the decision and believes that Obama did it to create a level playing field for all immigrants. "He put Cubans in the same condition as immigrants from other countries," he said.
Alpizar insists for those with deportation orders need to try and find a legal fix, because there is always the possibility that they could be sent back to the island, especially after Castro steps down from the presidency next year.
"Those who are not worried are not thinking straight. They should explore reopening their deportation case, find a relative to claim them or other options, but they must do something," he said.