After almost seven months in immigrant detention, Dayana Lopez finally feels free in her new home in Jacksonville.
Lopez came to the United States after fleeing Cuba in December 2018 following years of threats, beatings, and stints in jail because of her gender identity and political beliefs. She lived openly as a trans woman, but the Cuban government identified her as a gay man, therefore requiring compulsory enlistment in the military.
But Lopez didn't feel safe joining the military and refused to sign up. For speaking publicly about her belief that deciding to enlist is an individual's right, the government labeled her a counterrevolutionary.
"I expressed my ideals in the community," Lopez tells New Times in Spanish, "in neighborhoods, in parks, with friends who experienced similar situations. We asserted our rights and our decision to refuse to abide by our country's politics and institutions."
Lopez is one of 12 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit involving hundreds of asylum seekers who reportedly were categorically denied parole by the New Orleans ICE field office, which covers Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The suit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana in May. Now Lopez and others in the case are publicly sharing their stories for the first time.
"Everyone's dream is to feel free," Lopez says, "to express themselves, to feel what they feel and shout it out without being judged. This is a country where you can have that freedom."
Lopez boarded a plane to Panama late last year and rode buses through Central America before arriving at a U.S. port of entry in Texas January 29 and requesting asylum. Lopez spent months in various detention centers in New Mexico, Mississippi, and Louisiana, sometimes in solitary confinement, while waiting for parole documents that came too late and a parole interview that never happened.
With help from her lawyers, Lopez fought her case while she was detained. She was granted asylum in August and is now living with friends.
An ICE policy says detained asylum seekers who have identifying documents and can establish a credible fear of persecution if they are deported can be paroled on a case-by-case basis. A parole interview must take place no longer than seven days after credible fear is established. The asylum seeker should be paroled if their identity is confirmed and if they post no safety or flight risk, the policy says. If parole is denied, immigration officers are required to provide a written reason to the asylum seeker.
But the class-action lawsuit alleges the New Orleans office is not complying with ICE's parole policies. Federal data cited in the lawsuit shows the field office granted parole in 75 percent of cases in 2016. But the rates of parole granted to asylum seekers have dropped dramatically nationwide under the Trump administration. In 2017, the figure in New Orleans dropped to 21 percent, and in 2018, it was less than 2 percent.
"These are people seeking asylum, presenting themselves lawfully at a port of entry," SPLC staff attorney Mich Gonzalez says. "No matter what circumstances, no matter how dire, none of them are getting parole from this field office."
Gonzalez tells New Times the New Orleans field office has been checking off boxes saying almost everyone is a flight risk and failing to provide individual determinations and written responses for its denials.
“If you can't get paroled, your chances of winning asylum are extremely reduced," Al Page, one of Lopez's immigration attorneys, says.
Adrian Toledo Flores, another plaintiff in the case, was a pharmacy technician in Cuba. There, he was ordered to deny medication to patients for political reasons, court records say. When he refused, he was jailed and beaten. He and his girlfriend fled Cuba in September 2018 after police threatened to make him disappear if he didn't support the government, according to court records.
His girlfriend was about seven months pregnant when they fled. Flores' daughter was born in a Hialeah hospital while he was in detention in Mississippi. He was denied parole even though he never had an interview with an immigration officer, court records say.
New Times was unable to reach Flores, but in court documents, he says he developed insomnia and depression while detained. After more than six months in detention, Flores won his asylum case and was reunited with his girlfriend and their daughter.
Gonzalez, the SPLC attorney, says that although Lopez and Flores had their cases resolved, their claims still stand for an entire class of people that endured similar hardships while seeking parole because the issue is bound to continue.
Lopez describes in court documents her detention as "one of the most horrible experiences I have had in my life." According to her account, she was tossed in solitary confinement in a Mississippi facility because of her gender identity. She says the door to her cell was opened only for meals and bathroom use. She wasn't allowed to socialize with other people or go outside.
When she was transferred to a facility in Louisiana, she cut her hair and pretended to be a gay man so she wouldn't end up in solitary again. She was mocked and harassed by other inmates in general detention.
"I had to stop being me," Lopez says.
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The relief she feels about winning her asylum case and being herself again is tempered by the threats her family is still facing in Cuba.
"Because I fled, they had no way of getting to me," Lopez says of Cuban police. "They went after my parents. They're suffering, and I worry about them."
She wishes she could bring her parents to the states, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services allows only immigrants who were granted asylum within the past two years to petition for spouses and unmarried children younger than 21. Lopez won't be able to petition for her parents until she obtains her citizenship in five years, according to Gonzalez.
In the meantime, Lopez looks forward to getting her green card in about nine months. She'll continue with her transition and undergo hormone therapy again when she's ready. (She took medication in Cuba but stopped when she decided to leave.) For now, she wears braided extensions while she waits for her hair to regrow. Her worries aren't over, but she says she can at least be who she is without fear.