The Elephant: New Orleans must stand up for Cuban population

Adam Goldstein, Contributing Writer

Few can debate the legitimacy of New Orleans’ moniker as the northernmost point of the Caribbean. Between its geographic standing, an unorthodox blend of cultures and history as a major port marketplace, the city has carved out a niche that distinguishes itself prominently in the South and greater U.S. And while New Orleans has perhaps profited most from its African, French and Acadian roots, its ties to Cuba have definitively shaped the cityscape and socioeconomic history.

For one, New Orleans’ first bishop, Luis Ignatius Penalver y Cardenas, was a Havana-born Cuban. Before Cuba became a republic, the nation’s current flag was first sown and flown on Poydras Street in 1850. And a statue of José Martí, 19th-century Cuban poet and revolutionary leader, adorns the neutral ground adjacent to Banks Street and South Jefferson Davis Parkway.

These widely-acknowledged facts further say nothing of Jelly-Roll Morton’s love of “Spanish-tinged” habanera rhythms, the uncanny similarity of shrimp creole and camarones enchilados and cultural imports like rum and colorful houses.

When diplomatic relations began to thaw in December of 2014, after a Cold War-dated silence colored by McCarthian hostility, there was much to rejoice. Perhaps this misplaced hope is what makes the United States’ recent xenophobic rebound even more disheartening. Former President Barack Obama’s end of the “wet-foot dry-foot” policy for Cuban political dissidents in 2017, and President Donald Trump’s recent upscaling of ICE presence nationwide, has created oppressive conditions for both established and potential Cuban migrants.

As of February 2019, there are almost 14,000 immigration cases pending in the Immigration Court of New Orleans, along with roughly 1,000 others at three major Louisiana ICE facilities (Pine Prairie, LaSalle and Southern Louisiana Detention Center). In the past two years, the number of immigration-related cases in New Orleans has increased by more than 6,000, and the average wait time for asylum hearings stands at slightly under a year-and-a-half. Fifty-six Cubans are currently in Louisiana ICE custody and have been waiting (on average) slightly under three months in detention before their immigration hearings.

Systemic change on the national level has resulted in rushed court decisions and increased delays. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions instituted a quota in 2018, declaring immigration judges must clear 700 cases annually with an appeal rate of less than 15% to receive “satisfactory” performance evaluations. In New Orleans, only three judges work the docket. At other facilities, such as the LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana, judges are flown out from other jurisdictions to handle the burden. This crunch of time and resources has been particularly felt in the Cuban community, wherein levels of legal representation range from only 6% (at LaSalle) to 14%. They face judges who prefer to deport rather than prolong the process. As of February 2019, 10.8% of Cubans have had their asylum requests granted over the past 20 years.  

Further, deportation rates and numbers in Louisiana immigration custody are sky-high; the state recently ranked second-highest in deportation rates 96% of all immigration cases in 2019. Of the 4,761 deportations that have occured in Louisiana this year, 121 have been Cubans.

While the numbers paint a startling picture of systemic Cuban oppression, the reality of individual experiences has also been horrific. Take for instance, the case of Jose Antonio Hernandez Viera. In early 2018, Viera and his family fled Cuba due to intensive political persecution. He arrived at the border in May of 2018, three months after his wife and child had crossed over. Viera waited on a bridge in the hot sun for 8 days at the U.S.-Mexico border before being processed by border agents, and subsequently was hustled to the Pine Prairie Processing Center in Pine Prairie, Louisiana.

Though Viera passed a credible fear interview, his parole was preemptively denied by ICE officials. Further, Viera was detained for over six months before an Oakdale Immigration Court judge ruled in favor of deporting him. During this hearing, Viera had to act as his own legal representation. Viera is currently appealing his case, and preparing for an emergency hip surgery in detention. He has a daughter from a previous relationship who is suffering from terminal brain cancer, and he cannot support her treatment financially. Further, he continues to subsist in substandard living conditions.

And then there is the case of Roberto Doe*. Currently detained at Pine Prairie Processing Center with Viera, Doe is a 19-year-old Cuban soccer player who played in a competitive youth league back home. His current status was driven by a threat many young people dread: conscription into the army. As a consequence of not enlisting, Doe was pulled off of the soccer field during a game by police, jailed, beaten and threatened with his life.

Rather than live in fear, Doe fled to the U.S. in search of asylum. He arrived in the late summer of 2018 at the border, and was subsequently detained at Pine Prairie, denied parole, and had his request for asylum overseen by a judge who maintains a 100% denial rate. He is currently appealing his case with a pro-bono attorney, coordinated by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but remains in detention, dealing with untreated kidney pains and limited access to his family.

The purpose in highlighting these cases is not to take this hot-button issue and politicize it. Rather, we need to realize that the neglect, institutional misconduct and human rights violations abhorrent to our national conscience occur not just in war-torn nations or autocratic regimes, but in our own backyard. We must work to emulate New Orleans’ hospitable attitude for those who need it most, and celebrate diversity of culture not merely through products, but people.

*Subject’s name has been changed to protect their identity.

Editor’s Note: The case information referenced in the article was researched by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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