Julio Muñoz, who arrived during the Mariel boatlift in 1980, spent more time in immigration detention than in prison over drug convictions.
But he finally was freed when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that Mariel convicts could not be held in detention indefinitely just because they cannot be deported to Cuba.
Now Muñoz, like many other Cubans with deportation orders, has grown alarmed about a new bill recently introduced in the U.S. Congress that immigrant rights activists say could enable immigration authorities to re-detain indefinitely Cubans with criminal records who cannot be returned home.
“If they detain me again until I can be deported, I’d rather kill myself,” said Muñoz, voicing a sentiment echoed by other Mariel refugees interviewed at Camillus Health Concern, a clinic for the homeless and people of low-income near downtown Miami.
“I would hang myself if it came to that,” said Raúl Rodríguez, 53, another Mariel refugee with a final order of deportation freed from indefinite detention. “It’s like if you put a little bird in a cage, it dies of sadness.”
Though there is no immediate prospect for the bill to become law, some immigrant rights advocates say they are closely monitoring it because it was filed by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee and architect of 1996 laws that toughened immigration enforcement.
The Smith bill would essentially restore the ability of immigration authorities to hold indefinitely convicted foreign nationals until they can be deported, a power the immigration service lost when the Supreme Court ruled in 2001 and 2005 that foreign nationals who cannot be deported cannot be held in detention longer than six months.
While the Smith bill does not mention Cubans, activists say island immigrants likely would be among the most affected if the law passes because they make up one of the largest contingents of foreign nationals who cannot be deported.
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