The Smuggler as Savior
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."
None of the English-language stations responded to her calls, but both major Spanish-language channels ran reports of her travails, and those of Maria Elena. The segments were filled with heart-wrenching scenes sure to resonate with a huge segment of the Cuban community that has witnessed, often firsthand, the rescues, arrests, repatriations, and even deaths played out in the currents of the Florida Straits.
At the same time, Maria brought her cause before aides at the district office of U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who spoke to reporters and advocated merciful treatment for Juan. "I wanted [the Coast Guard] to let me speak to my husband," Maria says. "I didn't even know if they were ever going to let me see him." Diaz-Balart didn't meddle in Coast Guard matters, but he did send a letter on June 29 to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, making the somewhat irrelevant request that Reno halt any possible deportation proceedings and, if Juan faced charges, allow him to be tried in the United States "because of the obvious lack of due process in Communist Cuba."
Maria molded the TV coverage into several days of personal drama. She made sure the cameras caught her with her children and a half-dozen supporters picketing the Coast Guard station in Key West, waving signs she herself had lettered: "Justice For Juan Garcia" and "Would You Let Your Family Drown?"
Maria Elena, 34 years old, and her small daughter Daniela had been helicoptered directly from the Coast Guard cutter to a Key West hospital after the infant developed a high fever. At Maria's house a few days after their discharge from the hospital, Maria Elena talked with reporters as she sat, looking dazed, in a rocking chair, Daniela nestled against her dark T-shirt. The mother's high cheekbones were sunburned, and her blondish hair still seemed wind-whipped. "If my brother hadn't found us when he did, we all would have died," she sobbed into the cameras. "But it's my husband I'm worried about. No one can survive in Cuba. My family belongs to an opposition political party -- imagine how they're doing. And I have a child. I need help from my husband."
Maria Elena told an amazing story of launching a 26-foot boat (bought for the occasion and named Odalys after the sister of the buyer -- both of whom were also passengers) from the beach at Caibarien, northeast of the group's hometown of Santa Clara. This was on June 25. After two days at sea, the boat rammed into rocks and was taking on water. But on the morning of Saturday the 27th, they caught sight of an approaching vessel. "We thought it might be Brothers to the Rescue," Maria Elena said, referring to the Miami- based rescue organization that operates small airplanes over the Florida Straits. But incredibly, it was Juan in the Bayliner. "I give thanks every day," she said, one hand clutching the gold Virgen de la Caridad around her neck and smiling through copious tears, "for this true miracle."
When the cameras turned to Maria, she too was crying. The week before he left, Juan had been haunted by a premonition. He had the feeling his family in Cuba was going to try to leave. Then his aged grandmother called from Santa Clara with the news that confirmed his feeling. Frantic with worry, Juan took a boat -- the Why Not Too -- that a customer had left at his shop a few weeks earlier. At the time, their daughter, Janel, was just a week old and Maria was recovering from a cesarean section. "I was going to go with him, but he said, 'You're crazy, you just had a cesarean,'" Maria said. "Now I just don't know what's going to happen. My kids need their father. Especially our two-year-old." Josue, who has dark hair and opaque deep-set eyes like his father's, looked forlorn as he fidgeted with a rubber ball.
The television reports barely remarked on the incredible confluence of events that would have had to occur for the women's story to be true. But maybe they didn't have to point that out. Miami's exile community -- which knows intimately the lengths to which Cubans have gone to create new lives in the United States -- can cry in compassion while still recognizing that fabulous tales of escape and rescue often contain elements of invention. A Cuban man who himself immigrated to Miami four years ago (and who asked that his name not be used) said he assumes the account of divine intervention is a lie. "A lot of Cubans think they can do things like that because Americans are bobos," he said, "and will believe anything if they talk about how much they suffered in Cuba."
"There's a great, great market right now for smuggling Cubans in, and everyone knows it," explains Miami immigration lawyer Grisel Ibarra, who has no connection to Juan's case. "We are the greatest bullshit artists. If this man [Juan] came to the United States five or six years ago, he was raised in Cuba, and he knows exactly what bullshit to pull.
"His relatives probably weren't even coming from Cuba when he found them," continues Ibarra, who occasionally answers immigration questions on the Telemundo television network program Occurio Asi. "They were probably in the Bahamas somewhere. What probably happened was they called up and said, 'We got somebody who's going to take us this far.' Then they give him directions where to pick them up."
The INS trial attorney argued just that at Juan's August 21 hearing at the Krome detention center before immigration judge Kenneth Hurewitz. Juan had found his relatives near the island of Cay Sal in the Bahamas, about 120 miles south of Miami, and he had preprogrammed Cay Sal coordinates into the global positioning system (an electronic navigation guide) on the boat he had taken. "It has been related to me by other agents that it's common for boats leaving Cuba to come to Cay Sal and the people picked up by boats from the United States," INS agent Kenneth Coleman told Judge Hurewitz. "A staging area, if you will."
Juan, a sturdily built man of 32 with close-cut hair, wore a gold chain at the V-neck of his neon-orange prison uniform as he testified, and held a box of Kleenex on his lap. He had headed to Cay Sal, he told the judge, simply because anyone traveling from Cuba to Florida by boat couldn't avoid passing it. The desolate island lies in an expanse of shallow water called Cay Sal Bank. A giant sandbar and rocky outcroppings make passage treacherous. "If I were going to smuggle, I'd use a well-equipped, fast boat," Juan said. "Not the one I had."
When his grandmother called Friday morning, June 26, to inform him of the departure from Cuba of the nineteen people and begged him to "do something" to keep them from death at sea, Juan explained, she hadn't said exactly who was on the boat. But he was sure his daughter (one of two children from a relationship in Cuba), mother, and sister were among the passengers. "I didn't stop to think," he said through a court interpreter. "I had to rescue them from this craziness. A ten-year-old girl and a baby were out there." His eyes filled with tears, and the interpreter brought him water in a paper cup.
Two nights before his grandmother called, Juan added, he had spread out a map on the dining-room table and looked for routes between Cuba and Florida. "Lately when I talked to them on the phone," he explained, "they complained a lot, and they would ask me how things are in America, and they would be going to the beach all the time to fish, which was unusual."
On that Friday afternoon, he rushed to a nearby Publix to stock up on $130 worth of groceries (including a side of ham), most of which went into a 178-quart Igloo cooler. The boat was carrying about 160 gallons of fuel. Maria insisted he take her handgun just in case he needed protection. Juan is not an experienced seaman, but he says he learned basic navigation in school in Cuba and in Florida has been out several times fishing with friends, in the process learning how to pilot a boat. He is also, from all accounts, an excellent mechanic. Still, the journey to Cay Sal is extremely risky for a novice, especially one in a Bayliner, which isn't the most durable of motorboats and is better suited for short pleasure outings, like fishing in Biscayne Bay. Juan says he was not thinking of how dangerous the expedition would be, because he felt he had no alternative but to go in search of his family.
That evening, without telling his customer, Juan drove with Maria down the Keys highway, boat in tow. They picked what looked like a good launching spot, and he set off. He recounted in his testimony that late that night, after wandering through a slalom of small islands, he dropped anchor and slept for a few hours on the boat. By 10:00 the next morning he was about to give up and turn back to Miami, when he saw the sun glinting off something in the distance. He headed toward the bright object and came upon the Cuban boat, some 67 miles southeast of Islamorada. The Why Not Too got to about 20 miles from shore before running out of gas. Juan told the judge he made several desperate calls to the Coast Guard on a cell phone but that none went through. He then tried to reach Maria, to ask her to call for help. Again the phone didn't work.
According to the Coast Guard report, the passengers hailed a passing boat and asked it to radio for a commercial tow. That boat instead called the Florida Marine Patrol, which in turn called the Coast Guard. Juan and his relatives were taken aboard a Coast Guard cutter, and the Bayliner was impounded by the INS. The INS has not returned the boat to its owner and declines to say when or if that will happen.
During the time Juan and his relatives were aboard the coast guard cutter, asylum specialists from the INS interviewed each of them. When the agents concluded none of the arriving Cubans had valid asylum claims, Maria Elena and Daniela were taken to the hospital while the remaining seventeen boarded another coast guard cutter that would carry them to Havana. Before they left, border patrol agents came onboard to question some of the party, briefing the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami as their investigation proceeded. This customary consultation alerts federal prosecutors to possible smuggling cases. This time the U.S. Attorney's Office departed from its usual practice and decided not to get involved. That left the INS to pursue less serious administrative charges against Juan.
He insisted that from the start he had intended to turn over his passengers to the Coast Guard to make sure they came in legally and applied for political asylum. "Didn't you read the newspaper and watch TV?" asked INS trial attorney Howard Marbury. "Didn't you see that the government was repatriating people coming in without the proper documents?"
"Yes, but my objective was not to bring them into the United States," Juan replied with a defiant edge to his voice. "It was to rescue them from this madness."
"You were going to turn your mother and those kids over to the Coast Guard so they could return them to Cuba?" Marbury continued.
"Yes. It would be better than letting them die."
It's doubtful that Juan imagined his relatives would really be sent back to the place where they found life impossible and might face harassment after their return. After all, his own experience upon arriving in U.S. waters in July 1992 had been a different matter. In an interview during a break in his trial, Juan said he'd left Cuba in a wooden boat with about twelve other people and had been picked up by the Coast Guard about 25 miles off the Florida coast. The passengers, like most incoming Cubans then, were taken ashore, granted parole (after a year parolees can apply for residency), and had gone on to start new lives.
"We got off the [Coast Guard] boat on July 4, a holiday, and everyone was partying," Juan recalled. "It was a wonderful day." He shook his head, smiled ironically, and again his eyes shone with tears. "So different from this time."
Miami immigration attorney Tammy Fox-Isicoff, who isn't involved with this case, understands the suffering U.S. immigration policies wreak on thousands of families. And Juan's dilemma "just doesn't bend my heart," she says.
"While I feel bad for this family," Fox-Isicoff explains, "I've seen far worse." Referring mainly to 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act provisions that seek to weed out criminal aliens but have often meant incarceration, deportation, and financial calamity for upstanding legal residents and even citizens, she adds, "I hear stories every day about people's lives being completely ruined after 50 years of exemplary living."
The summer of 1992 saw huge numbers of balseros, or rafters, risking the perilous journey to the United States in crafts made of inner tubes (sometimes just a single inner tube) and whatever else they could scavenge. Often spotted at sea by the volunteer pilots of the newly formed Brothers to the Rescue, they were generally welcomed as heroes who had triumphed over impossible odds.
But since a 1994 agreement between Cuba and the United States, Cubans interdicted at sea are no longer automatically eligible for "parole" status. Now they, like people fleeing other countries, must convince an INS asylum specialist that they risk persecution if returned to their country. If they can't, they are sent back on the spot, as Juan's relatives were. If the INS thinks their asylum claims may be valid, they don't just walk off the boat into the arms of waiting family members -- they are taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, for processing. In a situation like Maria Elena's, involving sickness or other emergency, the INS will not repatriate the immigrant and will usually grant parole. Those who make it to U.S. soil aren't repatriated; depending on their circumstances, they may be temporarily detained at Krome and/or handed over to a social services agency for resettlement here or in other parts of the country.
A U.S. State Department spokesman explains that the number of Cubans attempting to illegally enter the United States has actually declined in recent years, but professional smuggling (which can net operators $3000 or more per refugee) has become more of a problem as individuals try to bypass the complicated and expensive machinations necessary to immigrate legally.
Smuggling operations, no matter which nationality is being smuggled, do seem to be bigger and better organized, says border patrol supervisory special agent Thomas Hampson. Since October 1997 the Miami regional office of the border patrol (the investigative arm of the INS) has recorded more than 120 apprehensions of alien smuggling operations in progress. For the entire previous fiscal year, beginning in October, there were slightly more than 90. "It's a cyclical thing, though," says a federal source. "Smuggling has been heavy this summer, but there are times it's been heavy in the past. There's no one reason arrests are up this year, but law enforcement is definitely getting better."
Smuggling also received stepped-up publicity this spring and summer as the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, which prosecutes most smuggling cases (although not Juan's) has enlarged its staff, and the Coast Guard has assigned three of its agents to work on smuggling cases with the INS.
In some ways, Juan was fortunate that the U.S. Attorney's Office wasn't interested in prosecuting him on criminal charges. Now he won't have a criminal record, and he won't have to spend time in federal prison. On the other hand, it's harder to prove smuggling in federal court than in an administrative immigration case. Two facts probably figured into the decision not to prosecute Juan criminally, according to two federal sources who asked not to be named: Everyone on the boat was related to him in some way, and there was no indication he was earning money from the trip. In federal court, with a largely sympathetic Hispanic jury, he might well have gone free.
Juan and Maria say their fortunes began to decline during his incarceration. Their major concern was that many regular customers, including auto dealerships, stopped coming back to Juany Transmissions (the name by which most people refer to Juan). The garage is next door to a tire repair shop in a strip of warehouses across the street from acres of swampy fields east of the Tamiami Airport. Their new Chevy Suburban was repossessed after Juan's arrest, forcing Maria to use her mother's old Toyota, which recently broke down. She has leased another van (possible, she says, because of smaller monthly payments). Their most recent phone bill was $350. She hasn't yet paid August rent on the four-year-old shop.
Juan was a motorcycle mechanic back in his hometown of Santa Clara but learned transmission work from a friend here. "I don't think a lot of people could do what he's done in this time," Maria says proudly. But Juany Transmissions has never been registered with the Florida Secretary of State, as required for all businesses operating in the state, although Juan did obtain the proper operating permits from the county. (He looks perplexed when asked about this and insists he has all necessary papers).
Thirteen years before Maria was born, her mother's parents owned a nightclub in Manzanillo, on Cuba's southeast coast. When the revolution triumphed on New Year's Eve 1959, Fidel Castro's army closed down the club, and the family soon left for New Jersey. Maria's parents divorced when she was four, and ten years later, she moved with her mother to Miami. Maria says she graduated from Sunset Senior High in 1991 and then attended cosmetology school. She thought about opening a manicure shop or training as a medical technician and opening her own lab.
One Saturday night in late 1993, as Maria tells it, mother and daughter went out with girlfriends, each to a different club. At a bar on NW Seventh Street, Emma struck up a conversation with a somewhat despondent young Cuban. "We both got home around three o'clock in the morning," Maria recounts, "and she said to me, 'I met this nice young man. You've got to meet him.' The next day I went over to where he was staying. Juan fell in love right away, but in the beginning I was like, 'I'm not ready to get married.' Then I saw he was very hard-working and very dedicated to my family. He wanted to take care of me and help me in every way." She pauses for a second, marveling. "He gave me everything. Four months later we moved in together, and one year later I got pregnant."
The couple never took the time to get legally married. Which was okay with Maria, she says, because "the relationship was really good, and maybe I thought [getting married] would be bad luck." Juan, interviewed during a recess in his trial, said he didn't want to discuss his life in Cuba or much of his history here.
Until late June it seemed he had gotten beyond his past. He had never become a legal resident or gotten married, and he had neglected to register his business with the state, but there had been no apparent consequences. In January of this year, while Maria was pregnant with their second child, they bought a house not far from their shop. It was in the brand-new Emerald Pointe subdivision, a $135,000, three-bedroom tract house with a pool in the back yard.
A few weeks ago, when Juan was still in detention, he called Maria at the shop and asked her to do him a favor: Drive out to Krome, pick up a Cuban national who was being released, and let him sleep for a few nights at the shop. He'd become friends with the man, who had no family or friends in Miami. So Maria left the shop's three mechanics to their work and drove off in the rented van.
She stopped at the guard station outside Krome and told the young crew- cut attendant she was there to pick up one Pedro Sanchez. The guard made some calls, then returned to tell her the wait would be about half an hour. "Gracias, mi'jo," Maria replied.
She decided to drive to a market down the road and pick up a copy of the day's Miami Herald, which, Juan had advised her, contained an article about redoubled anti-smuggling efforts and mentioning his case. She waved as she passed a small group of protesters standing on the roadside holding up a huge banner that said in Spanish, "Justice for Cubans." "I went to one of their protests," Maria said. "But I don't want to get too involved with them, because what their cause is, is people who've committed crimes, and they're [INS] still holding them."
On the way back to Krome, Maria pulled over to a rest area at the roadside near a covered picnic table and a bank of pay phones. Two men and a woman were moving restlessly around the table. One of the men approached Maria's van. She rolled down the window and he began a good-natured complaint in Cuban street slang about a relative they thought was going to be released.
"Yes, my husband's been in there for two months, and it's an abuse," Maria replied, pulling the front section of the Herald off the dashboard. "He's in this article. There were some reports about him on TV. They held him on a boat for a week, with me trying to take care of a newborn baby." She shrugged. The woman peered at Maria through the open window. "Oh, you're the girl on television, with that newborn baby," she said. "I remember you."
As she reached the entrance to the detention center, Maria noticed a thin man with salt-and-pepper hair. He wore what appeared to be new jeans and a turquoise polo shirt. "Mari?" Pedro asked with great enthusiasm. He piled his suitcase into the van, talking nonstop in Spanish about how kind she and Juan were to offer him shelter, how abusive the guards have been, how impossible conditions are in Cuba. He told Maria the strange story of his own detention at Miami International Airport, just as he was about to board a plane back to Cuba. He'd only been twelve days in this country. His new wife, whom he'd married in Cuba shortly before they came to Miami, had almost immediately kicked him out of their SW Eighth Street apartment, and he couldn't think of anything else to do but to fly back to Havana, where at least he could be hungry with friends and family. But since he had no documents, he was stopped and sent to Krome, where he met Juan. Now he claimed he would be on the streets if not for his new friend's intercession.
"I have no one here," he told Maria dramatically, flinging open his bony brown arms. "Except you, Mari, and my brother Juany." Then he added, in the manner of an old family friend, "And the two ninos, of course."
About a week after Juan's hearing, which everyone involved referred to as a trial, Judge Hurewitz notified both attorneys that he had decided in favor of the INS, that Juan had in fact aided and abetted the attempt at illegal entry of his nineteen relatives. He could have taken the decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals, but the INS wasn't willing to release him from Krome until every aspect of his case was finalized -- months and months in the future. The only way he could leave any time soon, the government told him, was, in essence, if he became a nonperson as far as the immigration service was concerned.
"I told Juan I didn't approve, although I understood why he did it," attorney Viota Sesin says. "He withdrew his application for asylum, he gave up any right to appeal, he took a final order of removal [deportation] from the United States. For all that, the service [gave] him relatively immediate release. It's somewhat unfortunate that this is the only ground he has to get out on so he can protect his business and his family. A criminal can beat up his wife and get out on $5000 bond. This guy, who knows how to work for his family, can't get bond or parole. There's something skewed about that."
It took only five days for the INS to process the paperwork for Juan's release, and he came home Friday, September 4. Maria's grandmother (who had also recently come to live in the house) had died eight days earlier, and Maria had been hoping Juan would be released in time for the funeral. When she finally did pick him up at Krome, they both were feeling wronged and pressured.
Even now, as some things click back into place, as Juan resumes working long hours at his shop and Maria is able to sleep a little later and stay at home more, they are unsettled, as if they still await a different ending to the ordeal. It could come. Immigration laws change, and amnesty isn't unheard of. On the other hand, Fidel Castro won't live forever, and perhaps one day all those "final" deportation orders will be executed.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter