“I’ve gone through so much — first in Cuba and now here,” Cuban journalist Yariel Valdés González tells me in a phone call Thursday from the Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility in Plain Dealing, Louisiana.
It takes three phone calls, actually, to interview Valdés.
Inmates are only allowed 15 minutes on the phone, then they’re cut off. He had to keep calling me back. I had to keep going through the motions of accepting, a grave, gruff voice telling me this would be recorded and that I was talking to a prisoner.
Valdés, 29, shouldn’t be there at all.
At a hearing Sept. 18, an immigration judge granted him political asylum in the United States. It was the second time a U.S. official found his claims of persecution in Cuba credible.
The first time — after he lawfully entered March 27 at the Calexico West Port of Entry between California’s Imperial Valley and Mexicali, Mexico — the immigration officer who interviewed him gave him parole, which is permission to be in this country to pursue his claim.
But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wouldn’t release him.
Instead, the agency sent Valdés into the dreaded dark hole of remote holding facilities of the South, where Cuban and Central American immigrants are purposely kept far from access to immigration lawyers and welcoming communities.
First, Valdés was sent to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi. Then on May 3 he was transferred to the Louisiana facility, a place so rough some of the 100 Cuban immigrants languishing there (some since 2017, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, without counsel and living in harsh conditions) staged a hunger strike. One young man sewed his mouth shut in protest.
The government has until Oct. 18 to challenge the asylum order, but that doesn’t justify keeping Valdés incarcerated under harsh conditions. And it is particularly unusual when a person has as strong a case as Valdés.
Ever the journalist, Valdés has been chronicling his experiences from prison for the Washington Blade and other publications for which he freelanced from Cuba after the government kicked him out for political reasons from every journalism job he held. He worked in the major newspaper in Las Villas, Vanguardia, and on radio and television.
When he started working for publications abroad, the government stepped up the harassment.
“Interrogations, arbitrary arrests, and the prohibition to leave the country,” Valdés said.
He was only able to leave Cuba, he said, after he got an invitation to go to a journalism conference in Colombia and he convinced his handler that letting him travel was the best way to get rid of him. From there he flew to Mexico, at every stage “in fear I would be taken off a plane.”
All of the persecution he endured in Cuba is documented in the 270-page dossier of evidence and affidavits from witnesses Valdés and his lawyer presented to the judge, who ruled in his favor.
“To return to Cuba would be terrifying,” he said. “My family has been threatened. I’m going to be jailed or worse because I came here and I told the United States all I know. [Until the judge’s decision to grant him asylum] I was very afraid to be returned to Cuba.”
It takes only a conversation to know this young man would be an asset to this country. He’s so respectful he asks me to “treat well in your article” the anti-immigrant U.S. government doing wrong by him.
Is ICE being harsher on him because of the profession he practices, the piece he wrote “Living an American Nightmare?” In a Spanish-language blog, the piece is titled “Una pesadilla americana.”
He writes: “ ‘This isn’t your country,’ Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility tell asylum applicants when they complain about the way they’re treated or prison conditions.”
Wouldn’t that be something: experiencing in America under the Trump administration the same censorship he suffered in Cuba.
For whatever reasons (no Department of Homeland Security agency will discuss cases citing privacy issues), ICE is acting the part of judge, jury, and department of corrections all in one.
Valdés should have celebrated his birthday a few days ago in the company of his Miami family. But instead he turned 29 imprisoned with other Cuban immigrants, some of whom have been released, he said, despite weaker asylum claims.
It’s wrong and against U.S. law and principles of due process to keep Valdés in prison, lawyers say.
Cuban stowaway Yunier García, who arrived in Miami in the cargo hold of a plane, won his asylum bid in Miami on September 25 and was immediately released. The government said it will appeal that ruling as well.
“By law, immigration officials should release asylum seekers like them from government custody once they have shown they will attend their immigration hearings and they won’t harm others,” the SPLC says in an article on the plight of Cubans being held in Louisiana. “Yet the government is flouting its legal obligation, unfairly confining hundreds of asylum seekers under cruel and inhumane conditions, with no end in sight.”
Valdés doesn’t understand what’s happening.
When Judge Timothy Cole gave him asylum, Valdés issued a statement through Blade.
“I am very happy and extremely grateful to this country for giving me the opportunity to live in total freedom, far away from the persecution of which I was a victim in Cuba because of my work as an independent journalist,” he said.
The second time our conversation was cut off Thursday, we were about to say goodbye.
You would think a man in prison would be saving his pennies. But he called back, using up more time on the calling card he had purchased.
I thought he had forgotten something important.
“I just wanted to express my gratitude to you,” he said.
I hadn’t done a thing but listen to his story and treat him with the respect he deserves.
But that’s just the kind of person Yariel Valdés González is.
He should be released from custody without further excuses.
Unless we’re now acting like the Cuban regime.