In the tiny yard of an immigrant prison in the remote town of Lumpkin, Georgia, Mateo sat down, trying to enjoy his one hour of outdoor time.
But before he knew what was happening, more than 70 other men, mostly Cuban, also sat down in the yard. They were staging a peaceful protest to demand answers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about the status of their immigration cases.
Mateo – a Cuban immigrant whose name has been changed to protect his identity – unintentionally became involved in the protest, simply because he happened to be sitting there. The protesters refused to go back into their prison cells that afternoon and sat outside overnight.
Even though the protest was peaceful, Mateo and the other men were beaten with rubber batons, hit with pepper spray and covered with a powdery chemical irritant.
After forcibly removing the men from the prison yard the next morning, guards placed them two at a time in small cells and did not allow them to eat or drink water for 24 hours. They also weren’t allowed to bathe.
“We stayed put with all of those chemicals on us,” said Mateo, 30. “We slept soaking wet and covered in mud. I thought I was going to suffocate to death in that cell. We had to stay quiet. We couldn’t speak. And no one was given updates on their cases.”
Mateo fled to the U.S. to escape the rampant anti-gay abuse and sexual assault from police in Cuba. But when he and his partner presented themselves at a port of entry in March 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents mocked them for their sexuality and transported them to a hielera – a frigid holding facility.
The men spent 11 days in the hielera, and were given only a piece of bread and water three times a day. They were also forced to share a blanket that Mateo said “looked like Christmas wrapping paper.”
Eventually, Mateo was separated from his partner and transferred to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, where he requested asylum. But after the protest and without any explanation, he was transferred to Folkston ICE Processing Center in Folkston, Georgia, on Sept. 13, 2019.
The abuses haven’t stopped.
The guards scream at him, even as he sleeps. They bang their batons against the bed frame to wake him up. They call him and the other detained men “ignorant.” When he appears in court, Mateo sits in the crowded courtroom from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., waiting to see the judge.
“The judge takes five minutes to decide my fate,” he said. “In the end, he always tells me ‘No,’ and I have to wait another month for another hearing. The court doesn’t listen to a single one of us. ICE can release us, but it doesn’t happen. I feel defeated. I feel like a prisoner, and I haven’t done anything wrong.”
The Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project of the SPLC that represents people facing removal proceedings in the Southeast pro bono – tried to secure his release on bond.
Even though Mateo has a strong case for asylum, he was denied bond several times. First, at a pro se hearing for which he was given no notice and was unable to submit any documentation, his bond was denied. Then, when SIFI worked with him to present all the necessary documents, he was denied bond without a hearing, because he had previously asked for and been denied bond while representing himself in court.
His partner, Luis – whom Mateo married on Nov. 23, 2019, in front of a judge at Folkston – was granted asylum and is now living in Missouri. Meanwhile, Mateo’s release has been refused several times.
“This case is a terrible example of how arbitrary the process is,” SIFI Lead Attorney Erin Argueta said. “It serves no purpose for the U.S. government to be spending so much money continuing to detain Mateo, who fled persecution in Cuba and has a strong claim to asylum on two separate grounds, thus keeping him from his husband and loving family. Seeking asylum is a legal way to come here, and he should be allowed to do so free from detention with the support of his husband, family and other strong community ties.”
‘Marginalized by society’
When Mateo and Luis were at the hielera, shortly after they had crossed the southern border, Mateo said that the guards did not seek medical attention for anyone who was sick. He was called a perro – a dog – and told that because he was in the U.S., he no longer had rights.
On April 27, 2019, Mateo was forced to say goodbye to Luis when CBP separated them. In the wee hours of the morning, Mateo was shoved into a van and transported to Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi. He didn’t sleep a wink throughout the night.
At Tallahatchie, he passed the interview given to immigrants that validates their fear of persecution at home. He was then transferred to Stewart.
There, he wrote a letter for the judge presiding over his case that testified to the abuses he suffered in Cuba. In part, he wrote:
I left Cuba March 23, 2019, because my life was becoming impossible. I was living a life in the shadows, without freedom of expression, of protest, a life of discrimination and suffering . . . I was marginalized by society and the government . . . [due to] my sexual orientation and political opinion.
Mateo never received any updates on his case at Stewart. He said ICE was singling out Cubans in particular, and pointedly refusing to answer their questions.
“ICE was denying us answers,” Mateo said in Spanish during an interview in October from Folkston. “We just wanted answers. They’re just deporting Cubans.”
Collectively, the Cuban men detained at Folkston wrote a note explaining why they felt their detention was unjust. In part, the letter reads:
We are only [wasting] millions [of dollars] for the government instead of being outside and providing for our families . . . We beg that you [not] punish us anymore . . . that you don’t deny us freedom as if we were criminals, when we are no more than victims of abuse and maltreatment by our government of origin.
When Mateo has court, he said he feels embarrassed, because he is forced to recap the abuses he suffered in Cuba – something he prefers not to discuss.
Since he was a little boy, Mateo has been persecuted, abused and discriminated against – all because he is gay. In elementary school, his classmates would hold him down and spit in his mouth and face. His teachers publicly humiliated him by taunting him with homophobic remarks, telling him that he should “behave like a man” and “play with boys, not girls.”
At 18, Mateo had a mandatory enlistment into Cuba’s military. After completing his service, he was placed in school to become an art teacher. The director of the scholastic center where Mateo worked repeatedly interrogated his students, asking them if Mateo talked about sex or touched them inappropriately. What’s more, people on the street often called Mateo “escoria de la tierra” – the scum of the earth – and threatened to kill him.
In December 2018, he was detained by two policemen who said they needed to drive Mateo to the police station for a “routine check.” Instead, they took him to a back alley, pushed him out of the car, restrained and beat him. They punched and kicked him, all the while reprimanding him for being gay. Then they sexually assaulted him.
Afterward, they threatened to tell others that they arrested him for soliciting prostitution. Mateo – ashamed, humiliated and scared – told only Luis.
“Telling my story is humiliating, because I’m sharing my secrets,” Mateo said. “Everything about detention is hard. It’s psychological torture to be here. I’m still being called names that I tried so hard to escape. Everyone is against me, and I have no one to defend me.”
Mateo grows more desperate for his release every day. He said the only hope he has now is for his freedom – to fight his case and win. But after eight months locked up, he’s losing sight of his dream.
“I came looking for help,” Mateo said. “When we left our country, we were told the U.S. was the safest country in the world. But the country is keeping me prisoner. It’s terrible just sitting here. I need my husband. I need the favor of the court. But the hope I had for a better life is fading.”
Photo by David Goldman/AP Images