As Jose Antonio Hernandez Viera said goodbye to his 6-year-old daughter in Cuba, he was distraught. She suffers from terminal brain cancer, and needs his emotional and financial care.
But Viera had no choice. The political persecution he was facing had reached its peak, and he would die if he were to remain in his home country, leaving his daughter fatherless.
Viera decided to seek asylum in the U.S., and prayed for a job that would allow him to support his family from afar.
However, once he got to the U.S. border, he had to wait in line for eight days before presenting himself to immigration officials. Surrounded by beggars lying in dusty roads, he waited in the scorching heat without access to a bed, food or a restroom. He was miserable.
But not as miserable as he is now, he said.
In May 2018, Viera was transported to Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center. But in Louisiana, ICE preemptively denied his request for parole. SIFI then filed another request, outlining an array of humanitarian reasons for Viera’s release.
But due to the hurried pace of immigration court and the often confusing way it operates, Viera had to represent himself at his asylum hearing. He was ordered removed from the U.S. on Dec. 3, 2018, but is now appealing his case through a pro bono attorney.
Meanwhile, intolerable prison conditions are “driving him crazy.”
Like Rodrigo, Viera lives in constant pain. He desperately needs hip surgery, and requires help from other detainees to shower. He can barely walk.
He was prescribed Tylenol and Tramadol, but they do nothing to relieve his agony. Instead, the Tramadol makes him feel so dizzy and sedated that he can’t get out of bed.
“No one cares about my pain,” he said. “They treat me like a dog.”
Viera and other detainees are corralled like cattle in the prison hallways. They listen as officials call them “stupid” and “ignorant.” During his waking hours, Viera is either bored and lonely, or sad and depressed.
“I haven’t done anything to deserve this,” Viera said. “None of us have, but yet we are held captive in a cell.”
Like others, Viera doesn’t know why his request for parole was denied. He and the other men have grown frustrated.
The frustration reached its climax in July 2018, when Viera participated in a peaceful protest and hunger strike with other detainees. They wanted to learn about their cases, and they asked ICE to communicate with them in Spanish.
Not only did ICE deny their requests, but prison officials also removed the television, microwave and commissary privileges as punishment for protesting. Some men were also forced to spend up to 99 days alone in segregation, where they would beat their heads against the cinderblock walls out of desperation to be released.
As Viera went without food, the guards cruelly taunted him, asking him to move his hand, “so they could see I was alive,” he said.
But what hurts Viera the most about his grueling detention is being separated from family. A father of four, Viera misses his wife, who – along with his youngest daughter – fled Cuba three months before he did.
Every day, Viera prays for his release. He prays for the daughter he was forced to leave in Cuba. He prays to see his family again.
But he’s losing hope, certain that something is awry in Louisiana. He’s certain that the U.S. government has a vendetta against Cubans.
“They send Cubans back to Cuba,” he said. “There’s something happening, and I’m sure – I’m convinced – that they don’t want us here.”