Yoel Alonso Leal is a Cuban man who has lived in New Orleans and is seeking asylum in the United States. Beginning last October, he sat in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention despite the fact he suffered from severe gout and a host of other ailments. This past May, he went to the doctor for a lung scan. The test showed a mass of abnormal cells in his chest, and doctors wanted him to get a biopsy — they believed he might have lung cancer.
But Leal never got that chance. Instead, advocates fighting on Leal's behalf said, ICE today ordered him placed on a plane from Atlanta to Havana. The agency gave that directive even though doctors said stress from the flight to Cuba could kill Alonso. This morning, more than 100 doctors and medical students in the New Orleans area signed an open letter warning ICE not to deport Leal.
"To proceed with air travel without an independent pulmonary evaluation by a non-ICE affiliated physician could lead to death at ICE's hands," the letter stated.
Despite their concerns, advocates fighting for Leal announced on Twitter today that he had been placed on a Havana-bound plane at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Tracking records show the flight, Endeavor Air 5201, landed in Cuba around 1:30 p.m.
The deportation comes after the activists fought for months to secure Leal's release. Leal is one of the lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against ICE alleging the agency is issuing virtually blanket denials to asylum-seekers asking for parole in the agency's New Orleans area of responsibility, a zone that includes all of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Numerous U.S. lawmakers, including Minnesota Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Leal's hometown representative, Cedric Richmond, have spoken on Leal's behalf and demanded answers from ICE — to no avail.
In a last-ditch effort this past Monday, protesters reportedly flooded streets in downtown New Orleans while holding signs demanding that ICE "#FreeYoel." The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that police arrested ten activists who sat in the middle of a busy intersection and unfurled a banner reading, "No more family separation!” and "U.S. Customs and Ethnic Cleansing Enforcement."
The family of Leal had reported that ICE sometimes refused to tell them where he was being held during his captivity. But today, sadly, they found out about his deportation. Activists today on Twitter asked Havana-bound passengers to refuse to buckle their seat belts until Leal was removed from the flight, but records show the plane took off four minutes ahead of schedule.