MIAMI — When a guard approached his bunk bed asking if he’d like to see his family after 18 months in detention, the 24-year-old Cuban detainee thought he was finally going to South Florida where he’d be reunited with his aunt.
Instead, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had other notions. They were planning to reunite him with his family — in Cuba.
Now he’s one of at least two dozen Cubans inside detention centers in Louisiana and Georgia who have told the Miami Herald that ICE agents coerced them — sometimes through physical violence — to sign a form saying they desired to return to Cuba to visit family. The form has long been used by people traveling legally to the island under U.S. embargo restrictions that began in the 1960s.
For Cuban detainees, though, those “family visit” forms are a fig leaf used to justify hasty, permanent deportations, immigration policy experts say.
The detainees, 26 in all, told the Herald that if they declined to sign the travel documents, agents handcuffed them, pushed them against a table and forcibly scanned their fingerprints to get a digital signature. The Cuban nationals spoke with the Herald while in ICE detention in Louisiana and Georgia and provided some copies of the forms to the Miami Herald.
“Lots of people signed it because they don’t know English, but I do, so I told them I wasn’t going to sign,” a 28-year-old detainee said in Spanish during a video interview. The man is one of the hundreds of Cubans whom ICE has continued to detain for years despite being eligible for release.
“They threw me against the wall, yanked my arms back and put them in cuffs. They almost broke my thumb while trying to get my fingerprint authorization,” the man added.
He paused: “On paper it looks like I’m dying to go see my family. But what’s really happening is that we are all dying in here and will die if we go back.”
When asked by the Herald about the accusations, ICE declined to discuss the subject.
No one is being deported to Cuba at the moment by ICE because the island’s communist government has barred admittance during the COVID-19 pandemic. The last deportation flight to Cuba was in late February, when ICE sent 119 deportees home.
But immigration experts say ICE may have found a loophole.
Since 2000, under the Clinton administration, people who want to travel to Cuba have to apply for a travel license indicating that their visit to the island meets one of 12 criteria established by the U.S. Treasury Department.
The most common reasons cited by applicants: family visits, humanitarian work or religious activities. The “Required certification for travel to Cuba” form doesn’t have a section for people being deported.
Traditionally, the forms are available at one of many licensed charter companies that sell airline tickets to Cuba. Passengers fill it out at the time of purchase in compliance with U.S. Treasury laws. Airline carriers must also keep records for five years showing what sections of the travel law their passengers qualify for.
Omega World Travel — the company that books deportation flights for ICE, and whose logo appears on the travel form — did not respond to three requests for comment.
It’s unclear how long ICE has been using the forms, though detainees say the agency has been having Cuban nationals sign them since last year and as recently as Monday.
It’s also unclear if any detainees have already been sent home to Cuba after signing the forms, although some experts believe ICE pushed for the forms to be signed en masse to prepare for the next available deportation flight.
“My gut says ICE is getting ready so that when the moment comes, they can just load up a plane and be done with it,” said Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a nonpartisan Cuba policy research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “I’m troubled to see that this form would be signed by and applied to detainees in ICE detention.”
He added: “It’s like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.”
After not responding to at least eight requests from the Herald, ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Treasury Department declined to comment.
“We have nothing to offer you at this time,” wrote Treasury spokesman Zach Isakowitza, who did not respond to four follow-up emails.
American Airlines, the main commercial airline that transports deportees, confirmed that the company retains the information of all travelers to Cuba, including ICE detainees.
Cuba began taking back deportees shortly after former President Barack Obama and then-Cuban leader Raul Castro normalized relations in 2016. As part of the deal, the U.S. ended the so-called wet-foot dry-foot policy, which allowed Cuban nationals who reached the U.S. to stay. In exchange, Cuba agreed to take back Cuban nationals the U.S. government sought to deport.
Cuba, like other countries, stopped accepting deportees in March as the number of COVID-positive cases soared in ICE detention. (So far, more than 6,900 detainees are reported to have tested positive).
However, while some countries later began accepting deportees with a clean bill of health, Cuba refused. Further prolonging the Cuban detainees’ plight is that Cuba decision-making on who it will take back can be “arbitrary,” according to Cuba policy experts.
“Cuba accepts who they want to accept and there’s no rhyme or reason. It’s always been challenging to deport someone back,” said Juan Carlos Gomez, director of Florida International University’s immigration law clinic.
Eight Cuba policy experts the Miami Herald spoke to said they had never heard of ICE using the travel form to send detainees back. After reviewing the form, they said it appeared that U.S. officials had found a loophole to circumvent current travel restrictions between the two estranged countries.
“That, in and of itself, explains why ICE may be having Cuban nationals sign this travel licensing form — to circumvent the official deportation process and have them ‘self-deport’,” Gomez said.
Talks on a resumption of deportations to Cuba are expected to resume as soon as next week.
The deportations, if they do begin again, would serve the Trump administration’s broad policy of seeking to deport as many people as possible, thereby ending the preferential treatment that Cubans have benefited from for decades.
For detainees, one problem with signing the form is that it can be used in an immigration court to dispute their claim for political asylum, for which a detainee must show a credible fear of persecution if deported.
“If they sign that form, their chances of getting asylum are likely to be gone, because they are admitting to a judge that they aren’t afraid of going home — but that they in fact want to go home,” a former ICE chief deportation officer, who had in the past been asked by superiors to have Cubans sign the form in Florida, told the Miami Herald. The official now works for another federal government agency.
Mimi Tsankov, a New York immigration judge and a regional spokesperson for the National Association of Immigration Judges, the union that represents immigration judges nationwide, agreed that ICE could use the forms against detainees.
“In an asylum application hearing, evidentiary rules are relaxed, and an immigration judge considers all evidence material and relevant to the question of whether an applicant fears return to one’s home country, including testimonial and documentary evidence about the reason for travel.”
The signed form could also be used by ICE to carry out what it calls “voluntary departure.”
Voluntary departure allows deportees to leave the country at their own expense within a designated amount of time, in order to avoid a final order of deportation. In some cases, deportees pay a bond to be released and then purchase their own airline ticket to Cuba — a financial relief for the agency.
“The government is using (the form) to show that the immigrant wants to leave the country voluntarily. However, what they are doing is tricking, or forcing, people to self-deport,” the former ICE official said.
In recent years, “voluntary departure” applications surged as immigrants decided it was better to return to their native countries than languish in a detention facility. However, in 2020, applications plummeted.
According to a report by CNN Friday, a leaked draft memo reveals that ICE is planning to launch an operation to find and deport undocumented immigrants who failed to voluntarily leave the United States despite previously committing to do so.
In fiscal year 2020, 16,451 immigrants were granted voluntary departure status by an immigration judge, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks immigration court data. That’s a 41% decrease from the previous year, which saw 27,813 voluntary departure applications.
“The tactic is that ICE will keep them in detention until they give up and sign their lives away,” said Ross Militello, who worked as an attorney for ICE up until last year, and currently runs a private immigration practice out of Miami and San Francisco.
“Some sign it without knowing what it says, while others sign anything in desperation to get out of hell.”
Meanwhile, the detainee who signed the form after he was promised to be reunited with family told the Herald he’s waiting for his fate to be decided.
“I want to be freed, not go on a vacation.”
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