The Smuggler as Savior

Juan Garcia Pino was obeying a higher law when he rescued nineteen family members fleeing Cuba. But a more mundane law ruined everything.

Night and day a tall white candle flickers like a holy flame on top of the big television and VCR in Maria Gonzalez's den. A black doll in a lacy white dress -- representing la Virgen de la Caridad, the mulatta patroness of Cuba -- sits propped between the candle and a vase kept filled with yellow roses. In the Santeria pantheon, this Virgin is also the goddess Ochun; she is partial to offerings of yellow flowers. The profusion of sunflower images throughout the house, on everything from wall hangings to napkins, must surely please her.

For more than two months the candle has burned as a continuous petition for the return of Maria's "common-law" husband, Juan Garcia Pino, who until ten days ago was locked up for alien smuggling at the Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center on Krome Avenue. It still flickers for the reunion of Juan's sister, Maria Elena, with her own husband. Maria Elena and her five-month-old daughter now live with Juan and Maria; they alone, of nineteen refugees Juan was accused of attempting to smuggle into the United States, were not repatriated to Cuba after the Coast Guard apprehended them at sea. Maria Elena's husband was among those sent back; it could be years before she sees him.

Juan and Maria had been living a South Florida version of the American dream: a hard-working couple with two young children, a business they own, as well as a new car and new suburban home in southwest Miami-Dade County. Although Maria was born in the United States, Juan arrived in Miami, alone, only six years ago. They'd come a long way in their four years together.

But as it turns out, they also lived in Miami's thriving and sizable immigrant subculture, which is tightly knit and sufficiently self-contained to insulate its inhabitants from worry about compliance with the letter of the law. Like thousands of other Cuban immigrants, who for 40 years have received more lenient treatment under U.S. immigration policy than other groups, Juan was more preoccupied with making a living than following all the rules. One example: He never became a legal resident. In fact, because of this neglect, he was ordered deported in 1994.

That order, as most Cubans understand, was meaningless. The Castro government doesn't accept deportees, so in most instances (usually barring a criminal conviction and subsequent prison sentence), a Cuban in the United States without papers is free to live a normal life. With time Juan's American roots grew, his family grew, and he felt secure.

Then that safe, self-sufficient world collapsed. Even if his intentions were noble, Juan did something that left his family in disarray. This past June 26, he went to sea in a Bayliner cruiser and the next morning picked up nineteen Cubans, all related to him by blood or marriage, bound for Miami in a slowly sinking boat. But the Bayliner ran out of gas, the Coast Guard found them, and he didn't return home for months.

On his son's second birthday, July 2, Juan was being interrogated aboard a Coast Guard cutter off Key West, on which he'd been held for almost a week. Driven to Krome two days later in a border patrol squad car, he declined a deal the government proffered: freedom in exchange for an admission that he had violated immigration law by attempting to help his relatives illegally enter the United States. In simpler terms, he was being asked to admit to smuggling -- but since it was an immigration case, everything from the terminology to the personal and legal consequences were different than they'd be in the criminal justice system. Making that admission wouldn't mean a criminal record or prison for Juan, but it would prevent him from ever applying for residency, explains his attorney Leonardo Viota Sesin.

Juan decided to turn down the deal and risk taking his case before an immigration judge. He was denied bail and remained incarcerated while awaiting an administrative hearing, which in immigration law is virtually the same as a trial. But in the end he made a deal anyway, one in which he did admit smuggling and forfeited nearly all his civil rights. It was the only way he could go home.

Juan called Maria collect several times every day during those months, at home or at their transmission repair shop. But that did little to ease the pressure of her new responsibilities -- suddenly she found herself the head of a household of women and children without their men; she was running the business herself, looking after her son and newborn daughter, and all the while providing succor for her lonely and homesick sister-in-law.

Maria, 26 years old, is plump and round-eyed, with an upturned nose and rose-petal lips. But she is hardly a delicate doll. She grew up with the U.S. individualist ethic,, and she wasn't about to let her government ruin her life. Maybe she hadn't heard the horror stories in the news lately, the results of harsh new U.S. immigration legislation that has indeed ruined lives: stories about wage-earners deported after decades in this country, single mothers sent to live thousands of miles away from their young children, stories about model citizens incarcerated indefinitely. She probably didn't realize that the INS often detains noncitizens (sometimes even citizens) as long as the service feels like it. She decided the quickest way to get Juan back was to do the American thing: She called all the major television news departments in town. "I wanted to let everyone know what they were doing to my family," Maria says. "I wanted people to call the authorities and tell them about this abuse."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets