Shackled, cuffed and stuffed into the “black hole” of America’s immigration system in rural Georgia, far away from family and friends, Marco soon began to rely heavily on his faith.
He was forced to share a room with 63 other men at Stewart Detention Center. He slept on a stiff bunk bed, and the guards kept the lights on all night.
It was hard for him to sleep under those conditions, so he prayed.
“In Cuba, I always believed in God,” he said in Spanish during a recent interview. “But I never gave myself fully to Him. At Stewart, though, I put myself in His hands, and my faith grew.”
Marco’s prayers were answered when the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project of the SPLC that represents immigrants facing deportation proceedings in the Deep South pro bono – secured his release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after seven months of detention.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Marco, 34, whose name has been changed in this story to protect his identity. “I was so happy and so relieved. A guard led me out of the dorm, and I was free. I told God, ‘Thank you,’ every day, even when things were bad. And that’s why I’m here.”
SIFI Lead Attorney Erin Argueta – who Marco said had become his “best friend” – was grateful for his release and argues that his detention was unjust.
“There was no reason to have kept Marco detained for more than seven months without any response about his parole request,” Argueta said. “He faced the trauma of being detained, mistreated and cut off from his family and friends with a strength and hopefulness that not many could sustain in those circumstances. We were thrilled when ICE granted parole. I know he will do everything necessary to pursue his claim for relief and build a safe future for his family here.”
After being physically and mentally abused by police in Cuba, Marco fled his country on June 10, 2019.
First, he flew to Nicaragua and then traveled by horse and on foot through Guatemala and Mexico.
He arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 29, 2019. There, border officials treated him like a criminal, even though his only “crime” was seeking asylum – his legal right.
“[Immigrants] are detained for a crime we didn’t commit,” Marco said. “Leaving my country was very difficult, but I had no other option. My wife and daughters were safer in Cuba without me. But when I left, I never thought I would be detained.”
After presenting himself at a port of entry near McAllen, Texas, Marco spent 16 days at a hielera – a frigid, cramped holding cell used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection – near the border, sleeping on the cold, hard floor. He was only fed three small tacos a day, and the bathrooms didn’t provide showers, only sinks for washing hands.
Later, he was transported to Tennessee and then to Mississippi, where he passed the interview that validated his fear of home. As someone who presented at a port of entry and established a credible fear of returning to his home country, Marco was eligible for parole.
But in Mississippi, everyone was denied parole. On August 21, 2019, Marco was shackled, cuffed and shoved into a bus that took him 12 hours away to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.
In September 2019, Marco sent the necessary paperwork to ICE for his parole consideration. But he didn’t get any response. He reached out to SIFI to help him communicate with ICE.
Being locked up in an immigrant prison after seeking asylum in the U.S. was worse than the abuse he left behind in Cuba, he said.
“Being detained was the cruelest thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “I became so desperate for my release that I couldn’t see the light.”
‘Just a business for them’
Stewart is owned by CoreCivic Inc., one of the largest private prison companies in the U.S., and much of its revenue comes from operating immigrant prisons.
“We’re just a business for them,” Marco said. “We make money for them, a profit.”
In 2018, CoreCivic reported $1.83 billion in revenue, 27 percent of which came from its contracts with ICE. In January 2019, ICE paid CoreCivic $62.03 per day for each immigrant held at Stewart, allowing the company to rake in $38 million that year.
As Marco prayed for freedom at Stewart, guards told him and other detained immigrants point-blank that they would never be released.
He often cried. He cried for the two daughters he was forced to leave behind in Cuba, along with his wife and friends.
“ICE visited us a lot, just to tell us our only option was deportation, deportation, deportation,” he said. “They hold our parole in their hands, and tell us we will be deported, that we have no chance.”
Whenever he had an immigration hearing, he said the mood in the courtroom was intense, and everyone had to be quiet so that ICE wouldn’t “punish” them.
He believed that the guards were spying on him and every other detainee.
“Each official uses a telephone for translation that I think they would use to monitor our conversations,” he said. “They know we don’t understand English. Some of the guards are very rude and very mean, so I never knew what was happening.”
But in January, SIFI secured Marco’s release, leaving him free to pursue his immigration case from Miami, where he currently lives with friends.
Arrested in Cuba
Before he came to the U.S., Marco worked for 12 years in a Cuban market, selling produce. He vocally opposed the Cuban regime. In a letter to the immigration judge presiding over his case at Stewart, he wrote that the Castro dictatorship tried to “brainwash” him for being an “independent thinker.”
Along with a friend, Marco created two movies that bashed the dictatorship. What’s more, he marched through the streets, chanting, “Down with the dictatorship! Down with the Castros! Enough already!”
After this protest, Cuban police chased him through a crowd of people, but he managed to escape – temporarily.
The next day, police arrested him and locked him in jail for three days, calling him a “parasite,” a “bastard,” “scum,” and other vicious insults.
Sometime after he was released from jail, as a Christmas gift in 2018, Marco’s friends gave him a U.S. flag that he tied to the TV antenna on his house. The police saw the flag and demanded he take it down. He refused, saying he wanted Cuba to be a free, sovereign country.
Again, he was taken to jail, where police kicked him in the head and knees, and punched him repeatedly over the course of six days. While beating him, police laughed, saying, “Once again, here [he is] in our hands!”
In his letter from Stewart to the immigration judge, Marco wrote:
All of this persecution and physical and psychological torture for defending my rights and for not sharing the same Castro ideals that they share!
After Marco’s latest release from jail in Cuba, his father died of a heart attack following an argument with the officer in charge of jailing Marco. That’s when Marco, heartbroken, decided to flee to the United States.
Holding tight to his faith, Marco remained steadfast in his fight for freedom. His letter to the immigration judge seeking asylum also reads, in part:
I have no intention of returning to my country, and I only wish to surrender myself, body and soul to this country, to serve it well, and if war were necessary, I would be there. For me the most important thing is to . . . fulfill the dream of living in a free land.
Now that he is free, Marco plans to study, work and learn English. He said his life is filled with peace, and that coming to this country was his destiny, despite its obstacles. His prayers are now focused on those who don’t understand the plight that he – like many other immigrants – must endure.
“We go through so much, and this is the country with the most freedom in the world,” Marco said. “I pray that ICE realizes immigrants are just like them, that we deserve a life, a future. Immigrants are people; we have families, wives, children. People need to understand that.”