Before being detained Friday at Miami International Airport, Cuban couple Aquilino Caraballo and Georgina Hernandez, 67 and 64, had visited their relatives in the United States six times.
The husband and wife, who had tourist visas for five years, did not expect any problems.
Neither did their children, Geidy and Jorge Caraballo, who live in Hialeah.
But at 3 a.m. Sunday, after waiting more than 36 hours at MIA for her parents to clear customs, Geidy Caraballo learned that her parents had been detained, separated and sent to immigration facilities — he to the Krome Detention Center in Miami-Dade and she to the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach.
“I saw my mother on Sunday afternoon,” Geidy Caraballo said through tears at her home in Hialeah. “But I do not know anything about my dad, and he has health issues.
“I talked to him by phone for a bit on Sunday and he only asked me if my mom was OK,” she said between sobs. “My dad is a guajiro (from the countryside) who does not know to express himself well or navigate the system and he comes from a nation where he cannot even speak freely.”
My dad...does not know to express himself well or navigate the system and he comes from a nation where he cannot even speak freely.
Caraballo, a 41-year-old optometrist who has been living in the U.S. for 18 years, said she is calmer after seeing her mother, but it was agonizing to see her wearing inmate clothing at the detention center.
“I’m more worried about my dad, because I do not know if they’re giving him his medicine,” she said.
According to Caraballo, who is a U.S. citizen, her mother told an immigration officer at the airport during their interview that they both “wanted to stay” in the U.S.
“It did not occur to them that someone with a visa for five years who wanted to stay had something to do with the wet foot, dry foot policy,” Caraballo said. “They were misinformed.”
The officer told them: “You want to stay? Now you’re going to see what it’s like to stay in the U.S.!” Caraballo said.
Her mother was frightened to the point that “they had to call rescue for her, because she got sick,” she said.
At the detention center in Pompano Beach, she was seen by a doctor, Caraballo said.
Several other Cuban-American families in South Florida are going through similar situations with relatives coming from the island, who are being held at the airport, asked questions and sent to immigration detention centers, according to Ramón Saúl Sánchez of the Democracy Movement organization.
Since the end of wet foot, dry foot policy — announced last week by the Obama administration — at least two Cubans have been sent back to Cuba, and others are being held at immigration detention centers, Sánchez said.
His organization is trying to help families who have sought assistance. Many of the cases involve elderly people, he said.
“Some of these cases are people who do not know what to say,” Sánchez said. “It seems like immigration officers have asked them leading questions that result in incriminating responses.”
It seems like immigration officers have asked them leading questions that result in incriminating responses.
Ramón Saúl Sánchez, Democracy Movement
José Ramón Lemus, 82, was detained for more than 12 hours at the airport. His daughter, 53-year-old Miami resident Dalia Lemus, said her father was asked by an immigration agent: “Are you afraid of living in the U.S.?”
To which he replied: “Afraid? Of course not, my children live here and I have been here several times.”
“You just lost your visa,” the officer replied, according to her father’s account, Lemus said.
“My dad is an old man; he tells you one thing and then a little later he tells you something else. He has never wanted to stay [in the U.S.],” she said.
Her father was released at the airport around 1 a.m. Sunday, without a passport or a visa, she said. He has a citation to appear at an immigration office on Feb. 20.
“I asked him if he had said anything about political asylum, and he says no,” Lemus said. “But now he does not want to go back to Cuba because he thinks he’ll never be able to come back to the U.S. He only has two children and we’re both here.”
Wilfredo Allen, a Miami immigration lawyer who represents the Democracy Movement, said that although he has not dealt with any of the cases, he was working with the organization and that it was important for immigration officials not to “intimidate people,” especially the elderly.
“If you tell people they’re going to get arrested if they ask for [political] asylum, you’re creating fear,” Allen said.
People who apply for political asylum are usually detained, “but not for two years, as they are being told,” Allen said.
The detained Cubans face a deportation process, in which they are interviewed to verify that they have “credible fear,” Allen said. If they pass the interview, they can seek asylum before an immigration judge, he said.
“Unfortunately, the world has changed for Cubans since last Thursday,” Allen said.
Follow Abel Fernandez on Twitter: @abelfglez