Cuba Politics

Newly released Mariel refugees find life on the streets difficult

Posted April 14, 2005 by mattlawrence in Cuba Politics.

By Ruth Morris
Staff Writer
Posted April 14 2005

Miami After nine years in federal detention, Alberto Rodriguez’s homecoming has been less than celebratory. He sleeps in the street or at a shelter, and eats from Styrofoam containers. A small black backpack carries all his belongings.

The closest thing to an ID he can produce is a scrap of paper he keeps with his cigarettes, scrawled by a police officer after his release. It includes a case number pertaining to his most recent brush with the law, three weeks ago. “My problem is trespassing,” it says.
Slightly disoriented and short on words, Rodriguez, 57, arrived in the United States in the Mariel boatlift, the historic exodus from Cuba that began 25 years ago this month. He is one of about 375 Mariel Cubans with criminal records released from jail in recent weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled authorities cannot indefinitely detain them because of their precarious immigration status—namely, that the Cuban government won’t take them back.

As Rodriguez’s barebones existence suggests, the transition from prison to freedom is not always smooth.

Some of the men were imprisoned so long they have only sketchy ties to family and friends on the outside. Their immigration status is unresolved, and their criminal backgrounds push green cards out of reach. Many have applied for work permits and seem to be faring fine, but others, like Rodriguez, have surfaced in homeless shelters and food lines in Miami. Still more are expected soon.

“I’m sleeping in the street. Where there’s a little water, I bathe,” Rodriguez said as he ate rice and beans from a takeout container in downtown Miami.

Some days he sweeps floors and logs inventory at a community work program for the disabled, he said, earning $25 to $40.

Rodriguez, and advocates who have followed his case, say he was jailed nine years ago on charges he stole two bicycles. Admitted into the United States like thousands of others during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, he had never applied for a green card. Federal immigration authorities might have deported him, but Cuba has severely restricted whom it will take back.

Until February’s high court ruling, U.S. authorities could hold convicts like Rodriguez indefinitely after they served their time if the attorney general deemed them dangerous.

Some of the Mariel Cubans covered by the Supreme Court ruling served time for serious crimes such as rape, armed robbery or murder. Others, like Rodriguez, were jailed for relatively minor offenses. All have completed their sentences.

Jorge Garcia, 42, another of the recently released Cubans, said officials in Pennsylvania put him on a Miami-bound bus two weeks ago with $40 in his pocket. He had been sentenced to eight years for a shooting, then was held by immigration authorities for eight more years. When he applied for a work permit last week, he was told it would cost $175 to process—money he doesn’t have.

“If it continues like this I’m going to a police station to tell them to lock me up again,” Garcia said as he lined up for dinner at the Camillus House shelter in downtown Miami. “I’ve never been on the street before. This is too hard.”

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said prisons nationwide have released about half of the 750 Mariel Cubans affected by the ruling. Outreach workers think most will make their way to Miami, drawn by warm weather and the nostalgic comforts offered by the city’s Cuban community.

“We expect more and more to come. We really need to be prepared,” said Kelly Penton, spokeswoman for the city of Miami, which so far has helped more than 25 of the recently released Marielitos find shelter through a homeless assistance program. “This is where they last were, or where they may have a connection to somebody.”

Immigrant advocates charge the former detainees are being released in a disorganized manner, dropped off at shelters without any means of survival. Rodriguez said the prison system gave him $10 before he was released in front of a Salvation Army store in Orlando. A charitable organization nearby gave him bus fare for Miami.

“The needs of each detainee released will be met on a case-by-case basis, and in certain circumstances we may provide the alien with limited clothing, funds or transportation,” said Nina Pruneda, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency.

For Ricardo Gonzalez, director of Miami’s Neighborhood Enhancement Team of outreach workers, the group’s immigration status presents a special set of challenges.

“They’re basically confused. My sense is, in many cases they were expecting to join family and friends, and those people are no longer there for them,” Gonzalez said. “They’re in dire need of services. In some cases they don’t even have a Social Security number.”

In the meantime, Camillus House has provided shelter at night, Rodriguez said. Pilar Cordero, a friend who once lived in the same Havana barrio as Rodriguez and runs a liquor store in Miami, offers meals when she sees him but has not been able to find Rodriguez an apartment.

Asked how Rodriguez will survive, she nodded to the tiny store of bottles, a man with a thin droopy mustache, and a quiet, nervous youth with tattoos. “He’s in a safe place,” she said. “He can defend himself.”

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