Jail Cells Are Forever

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

Burke has yet to find much support within Miami's Cuban community for his cause. "Cubans in Miami don't know or don't care," he complains, tracing their coolness to Mariel. Cuban exiles, he believes, are still sensitive about being stereotyped as criminals. "Cubans are like anyone else -- some are going to be bad apples," he says. "What they don't realize is that they are being discriminated against."

Oddly enough, Cuban offenders who came to the United States during Mariel have a better chance of resolving their situation. The Mariel Cubans stuck in prison are guaranteed a review of their cases every year by immigration authorities, who can rescind deportation orders and release the offenders. (Under a 1984 U.S.-Cuba agreement, however, the two sides agreed to the return of 2746 Mariel refugees in custody at that time. As of the beginning of October, 1362 had been repatriated.) As far as non-Mariel Cubans in administrative detention, INS officials say the agency does not track them. "There is no yearly review process," says INS spokesman Andrew Lluberes, "but one is under consideration."

The number of detainees is bound to grow. In addition to the antiterrorism law, immigration legislation passed in 1996 makes deportation retroactive for those convicted of an aggravated felony at any time in the past. Suddenly noncitizens with years of law-abiding residence in the United States face deportation.

Such is the case of Ernesto Botifoll, who, upon returning in November from a business trip to Peru, was told he needed to answer questions at the Miami INS office about his legal status. Botifoll, who spent twenty years in Castro's jails as a political prisoner before coming to the United States, was convicted in 1989 of conspiring to purchase missiles and sell them to the Nicaraguan contras. A judge, rather than sending him to prison, sentenced him to parole. But the conviction qualified as an aggravated felony; when the 69-year-old Botifoll showed up for his INS meeting, he was taken into custody and hustled off to the Krome detention center. Three weeks later the local INS director released him pending a February hearing.

On Nathaniel Burke's office wall is a large map of the United States. As cases come into his office, he places push pins on the map to mark the locations of detained Cubans, virtually the only way he has to follow cases that are spread across the nation. Publicizing their plight has been equally difficult. One recent afternoon, he took his case to Miami's Cuban radio stations. In a phone interview on La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140), Burke urged listeners with detained family members to write or call him with their stories. "Cubans have a false sense of security in Miami," he says afterward. "If you are Cuban and not a citizen, be careful.

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