Jail Cells Are Forever

At least they are for Cuban immigrants who are not U.S. citizens

When Nathaniel Burke is not in his Little Havana office, a machine answers the phone. "Thank you for calling the Coalition to Support Cuban Detainees," a recording of Burke's voice begins. It then repeats the message in Spanish and adds, "If you are in prison, please leave your complete address." Since Burke opened the office at the end of September, he has received hundreds of calls and letters from Cubans incarcerated across the nation. Scattered in county jails, federal penitentiaries, and immigration detention centers, the Cuban detainees Burke deals with are, in effect, prisoners of history.

Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, all non-U.S. citizens convicted of an aggravated felony (a category that includes a wide range of offenses, from murder to the possession of drug paraphernalia) are to be deported to their country of origin at the conclusion of their sentence. But the American government's policy is to not send Cubans back to their homeland. As a result, hundreds of Cubans who have finished their sentences remain jailed, trapped in a limbo called "administrative detention."

"I consider them political prisoners, because they are in jail for a political reason," argues Burke, who was hired as executive director of the coalition after running a refugee-processing center in Haiti as an independent contractor for the State Department .

The coalition is financed by the Straus Family Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit foundation. "We are latecomers to this issue," concedes Faye Straus, secretary of the coalition. Straus became involved after watching a documentary on detainees from the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when Castro used the opportunity of a mass exodus to send Cuba's criminals to the United States. Many of those subsequently convicted of crimes in this country have remained in prison regardless of the length of their sentences. "I was in absolute shock that this could happen in the United States," she says. The fund sponsored a conference on Cuban detainees, which in turn spawned the coalition, whose goal, Straus says, is to "identify and locate the detainees, make sure they are provided with due process, and help them once they are released from incarceration."

Nathaniel Burke, a University of Miami law school graduate, spends most mornings with relatives of Cuban detainees, listening to their stories. On a recent Monday, three generations of the Borrego family filed into the coalition's small office off SW Eighth Street. They came on behalf of Walter Borrego. Convicted on drug and weapons charges, his sentence ended this past March, but instead of being released, the former truck driver sits in an INS detention center in Virginia. Borrego and his parents came to Miami from Cuba in 1970, but he never obtained citizenship.

Burke explains that he's not particularly interested in Borrego's crime because he has already paid his debt to society. "It doesn't matter whether he was guilty or innocent," he tells the Borregos in Spanish. "I am here because I think he is in prison illegally." The family seems grateful just to meet someone who appears to want to help and is not asking for money. (They paid a Virginia immigration lawyer $2000 but their son's situation remained unchanged.)

Among the documents Borrego's mother Evangelina hands Burke is a letter from his former employer Church & Tower, the Miami construction firm headed by the family of the late Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa. "Mr. Borrego was an excellent employee, and his possibility for rehire is very good," wrote his supervisor in an attempt to sway authorities to release him.

The 34-year-old Burke types the facts of the case into a computer database, explaining to the family that he cannot dedicate himself exclusively to the matter but imploring them to keep him up-to-date. "I can't be his lawyer," he says. "I am working on the cause."

After the family leaves, Burke, who spent three years at the Dade County Public Defender's Office, admits to a certain degree of frustration. Although immigration authorities have the capacity to free detainees, no mechanism exists for them to do so. "There is no way I can approach this on a case-by-case basis," he says. "It needs to be more global."

Yet changing American policy toward the Cubans will be difficult, he believes. Burke places part of the blame on a powerful national lobby that wants to keep prison beds filled. "The crime rate in the United States is going down and there are a lot of sheriffs and prison guards who could lose their jobs," Burke contends. "The Cubans are the perfect inmates -- they are not going anywhere."

The detainees' only hope is a groundswell of political support that would force Congress to review the issue and create a new legal procedure especially for the Cubans. Seeking political muscle was one of the main reasons the coalition decided to open its office in Miami. Says Burke: "This is the only city in the country where Cubans have influential ties to Washington."

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart says he is well aware of the detainees' situation. "It very clearly violates the rule of law, but there is no easy solution," asserts the Cuban-American politician. "It would be a tough sell to get legislation passed in Congress." Diaz-Balart points out that the detainees are deportable, and most legislators seem willing to wait until Fidel Castro dies to do so. As it is, he tries to intervene when cases come to his attention. "Many people do get released," he insists.

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