Renewing ties with Cuba raises questions about deportees

By Maria SacchettiGlobe Staff December 26, 2014

Florida Department of Correction 1984
Aurelio Marquez-Coromina has been detained since Aug. 31, 1995.

The historic renewal of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba has raised a thorny new question about the fate of tens of thousands of Cubans the United States wants to deport, some of whom have spent years in jail.

According to the latest figures, 34,525 Cubans have been ordered deported — and at least 110 are being detained, including two men who have been held in federal immigration detention for roughly two decades.

Federal immigration officials said it is too soon to say whether full-scale deportations would resume to the Caribbean island under the new relationship. Since the two nations severed ties in 1961, the United States has welcomed Cubans who managed to get here. But some Cubans have been ordered deported, usually because they committed crimes. The United States could not carry out the deportations, however, because Cuba refused to accept them.

Some progress came in 1984, when Cuba agreed to repatriate a limited number of people — mostly criminals and mental patients who arrived during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, according to the agreement and media accounts at the time.

A total of 2,746 people are on that limited list, and Cuba has so far accepted 1,999 of them, federal officials say. Another five Cubans not on the list were also deported.

Federal officials said this week that the 1984 agreement remains unchanged.

“US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has not changed its removal policies for Cuban nationals ordered removed,” Barbara Gonzalez, senior adviser to Latin America for ICE, said in a statement. “ICE operations remain the same.”

Last week, President Obama announced that the United States would reestablish formal ties with Cuba, including opening embassies in Havana and Washington. But he did not say how that would affect one of ICE’s top priorities: deporting criminals.

To deport illegal immigrants, the United States needs travel papers for them, such as a passport. If their native country refuses to issue the necessary papers, the United States cannot deport them.

Many of the Cuban deportees likely arrived in 1980, when then leader Fidel Castro allowed Cubans to leave from the port of Mariel, an exodus of 125,000 refugees known as the Mariel Boatlift.

Most refugees were not criminals, according to media accounts, and they were eventually cleared to apply for green cards and US citizenship. But according to the State Department, a number of criminals were “involuntarily included” on the flotilla to the United States. Once here, some committed crimes and were given deportation orders, but they were never included on the list of citizens that Cuba agreed to take back.

Cuba is far from alone in this refusal — China, India, and Jamaica have delayed or refused deportations in the past. Negotiations can drag on for years. Vietnam and the United States resumed diplomatic ties in 1995, for instance, but Vietnam didn’t start accepting deportees until 2008.

Even now, Vietnam does not accept deportees who arrived in the United States before the two countries renewed relations in 1995.

Faced with these stalemates in the past, the United States jailed foreigners for deportation for years — long after their criminal sentences were over — stirring outcry from human rights groups. In 2001, the Supreme Court declared this practice unlawful and said immigrants should be released after six months if the United States couldn’t deport them.

In 2005, the high court reaffirmed that protection for Cubans who came from Mariel, leading to the release of hundreds of people.

Among those released was Juan Carlos Hernandez, a Cuban national and convicted burglar who was detained for 14 years after he finished his sentence. By the time he was released from Fort Devens, his health had deteriorated so much that he was in a wheelchair. He has repeatedly declined to comment through his lawyer.

His lawyer, Kevin Barron of Boston, said the new diplomatic ties may pave the way for more deportations. But he said it would be cruel to force someone like Hernandez to leave.

“Somebody in a wheelchair is going to be put back to a country where he knows no one?” Barron said. “Why would you send somebody vulnerable like that into a place where he wasn’t wanted?”

Others are skeptical that Cuba will accept more deportees, and said President Obama should have secured that agreement before renewing ties.

“Unless we hold something over them, why would they do something they don’t want to do?” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. “Why would Cuba comply when they got what they want and basically Uncle Sam blinked?

Despite the Supreme Court rulings barring indefinite detention, some Cubans have been held longer under rules that allow for the long-term jailing of immigrants who are mentally ill and dangerous.

Among them are Aurelio Marquez-Coromina, 62, and Manuel Reyes-Pena, 60, now in a federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind.

Reyes-Pena has been detained by ICE since Oct. 12, 1993, federal records show. He was convicted in 1984 of kidnapping, sexual battery, and grand theft and has filed dozens of habeas petitions to get out of jail — calling himself “the unofficial prison cat man” in one — and judges have dismissed them.

Marquez-Coromina has been detained since Aug. 31, 1995. He was convicted of armed robbery in a case in which prosecutors said he threatened to blow a shopkeeper’s head off. Federal records show he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and harbors uncontrollable urges to kill people.

In 2006, Marquez-Coromina denied in a federal suit that he was dangerous and described himself as a devout Christian.

Immigration officials have said the men are jailed because they are too dangerous to release — and because Cuba has refused to take them back.