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Weekend Read: Cuban asylum seekers detained in Louisiana

Every day, tens of thousands of immigrants are locked behind bars in the United States. Many are detained for months, even years, far from their loved ones and communities. 

They’re subject to the same abuses prevalent in the country’s criminal justice system — low-quality nutrition, poor medical care, violence, and neglect — without the constitutional right to an attorney at the government’s expense. Although immigrants with legal counsel are more than 10 times as likely to succeed in their cases, the vast majority of detainees are forced to represent themselves in their proceedings.

As signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1984 Convention Against Torture, and numerous other international treaties, the United States has a legal obligation to grant asylum to persons seeking protection from persecution as a result of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Under current U.S. law, a person cannot claim asylum unless they are on U.S. soil.

As Charanya Krishnaswami of Amnesty International USA told The Guardian: “Seeking asylum is a human right, not a crime.” Yet with each passing day, the Trump administration rolls out cruel new policies denying asylum seekers due process and refuge in the United States.

Last week, we exposed the plight of more than 100 Cuban asylum seekers who have been locked up in remote Louisiana detention facilities since as early as 2017. They all entered the country legally and are seeking asylum the way the U.S. government dictates. All were found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture in Cuba. By law, immigration officials should release asylum seekers like them from government custody once they have shown they will attend their immigration hearings and they won’t harm others. Yet the government is flouting its legal obligation, unfairly confining hundreds of asylum seekers under cruel and inhumane conditions, with no end in sight.

Despite these challenges, many are raising their voices in defense of their right to be treated with dignity and respect. Some even drafted a manifesto to share their views with the world outside. And some of the detainees shared their stories with us. The names of the men below have been changed to protect their identities.

In Cuba, police officers barged into Brayan's home, shoved him to the floor, beat him in the face with batons, and threw him into prison for refusing to vote. Three days later, his mother died. Upon his release, he fled to our southern border – only to find that his suffering had just begun.

He brought citations from the Cuban government, a doctor’s note describing the injuries he had suffered from his assault, and documents to support the fact that his life was in danger in Cuba. Even so, he was locked up at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center and has been held captive there ever since.

Conditions at the detention center are deplorable. The food is barely edible. Mold clings to the cracks and corners of the walls, emitting a foul odor. In the mornings, when he and the other men get an hour outside to “enjoy” fresh air, they stare at the barbed wire crawling up the fences – a reminder that they are ensnared in a system that won’t set them free.

When Jose Antonio arrived at the U.S. border seeking asylum, he came with the hopes of supporting his terminally ill, 6-year-old daughter. He stood in line for eight days in the scorching heat without a bed, restroom, or any food. Still, he wasn't as miserable then as he is now.

He lives in constant pain, in desperate need of hip surgery, and requires help from other detainees to shower. He can barely walk. Meanwhile, intolerable conditions are “driving him crazy.” He joined other detainees in a hunger strike, demanding to learn about their cases and asking ICE to communicate with them in Spanish.

Not only did ICE deny their requests, but some detainees 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.

Yerandy, a Type I diabetic, was deprived of medical attention for eight months. His blood sugar spiked, his weight plummeted, his vision deteriorated, and his hands and feet became infected. Then, he was thrown in solitary confinement.

But like so many others, he said that no matter the circumstances he’s endured while locked up, nothing terrifies him more than being deported; “It’s so bad [in Cuba] that I’d rather stay in segregation here than return home.”

The detention of these men comes as part of a massive recent expansion of ICE operations. The Trump administration has responded to the humanitarian crisis at the border by drastically expanding its capacity to detain people in places like Louisiana. The number of people detained has reached a record high under the Trump administration, and in the last several weeks ICE has been transporting hundreds of people from the border to detention centers in Louisiana.

Through our Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), which provides pro bono legal counsel to detained immigrants throughout the Deep South, we’ve partnered with colleagues at Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy (ISLA) and other pro bono attorneys to represent asylum seekers and our SIFI team advocates on their behalf to federal lawmakers.

We’re also fighting in a series of other cases to stop the Trump administration’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. We’re challenging the administration’s longstanding policy and practice of denying migrants access to the asylum process at ports of entry along our southern border – which has played a major role in creating the crisis at the border. We’re also working with the ACLU to fight the asylum ban.

Learn more about SIFI and the Cuban asylum seekers, and join us in calling on the Trump administration to release them.

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Reads every Saturday morning.