June 5, 2019 at 7:33 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Blade contributor seeking asylum describes La. jail conditions as human rights violation
Yariel Valdés González, right, interviews a Mexican migrant at a lesbian-run shelter in Mexicali, Mexico, on Jan. 27, 2019. Valdés, who is from Cuba, has asked for asylum in the U.S. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A Washington Blade contributor from Cuba who is seeking asylum in the U.S. contends the conditions in the Louisiana jail in which he is being held amount to human rights violations.

Yariel Valdés González first described the conditions at Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility in Plain Dealing, La., during an emotional telephone call he made to the Blade on May 3 after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement transferred him from the Tallahatchee County Correctional Facility, a privately run prison in Tutwiler, Miss.

“The conditions are bad,” said Valdés on May 31 during another telephone interview from Louisiana.

Valdés told the Blade “there is no privacy” and he is sleeping on a “thin mattress.”

“It’s like a prison, not an immigration center,” he said.

But Valdés on May 31 told the Blade he does have access to hot and cold water. The high temperature in Plain Dealing, which is located north of Shreveport in northwestern Louisiana on Monday was 92 degrees. Valdés told the Blade on Tuesday during another telephone call the air conditioning at the jail is functioning.

‘Life became hell’ after signing letter against journalists ‘censorship’

Valdés, 28, legally entered the U.S. on March 27 through the Calexico West Port of Entry between Calexico, Calif., and Mexicali, Mexico. ICE transferred him to Mississippi a few days later.

Valdés is originally from Cuba’s Villa Clara province.

He graduated from Universidad Central Marta Abreu de las Villas in 2014 with a degree in journalism.

Valdés in a letter that outlines the reasons why he is requesting asylum says he worked for Vanguardia, a newspaper published by the Cuban Communist Party in Villa Clara, while he earned his degree. Valdés says he began to contribute to independent media outlets in 2015.

Valdés writes he signed a letter against the “censorship and harassment” of independent media outlets in 2016. He says the Cuban Communist Party began to harass him and his “life became hell.”

Valdés in his letter writes Vanguardia docked him a month’s pay and left him “without work” after current Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who was the country’s vice president at the time, told the newspaper’s management to “control that public demonstration by some journalists who questioned the authority of the Cuban government.” Valdés also claims the Union of Young Communists, a branch of the Cuban Communist Party that publishes the Juventud Rebelde newspaper, also expelled him and he was fired from the state-run radio and television stations for which he had been an announcer.

Valdés was a contributor for Tremenda Nota, the Blade’s media partner on the Communist island, when the Cuban government in August 2018 summoned him to a meeting after a university in Colombia and the International Center for Journalists in D.C. invited him to participate in a program for Cuban journalists. Valdés in his letter writes he soon realized Cuban officials had prevented him from leaving the country in order to attend the workshop.

Valdés writes Maykel González Vivero, publisher of Tremenda Nota, and several of his colleagues, asked the Cuban government to “evaluate my situation.” Valdés says he was eventually allowed to leave the country because he said he was going to visit his father who lives in Mexico.

Valdés says he traveled to Colombia and attended the program for Cuban journalists. He arrived in Mexico last fall and became a Blade contributor.

Yariel Valdés González photographs a portion of the fence that marks the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 26, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The State Department’s 2018 human rights report notes the Cuban government “does not recognize independent journalism.” A report that Freedom House released in 2017 notes Cuba “has the most repressive media environment in the Americas.”

Access to Tremenda Nota’s website in Cuba has been blocked since Feb. 23.

Authorities on May 8 arrested Luz Escobar, a reporter who contributes to 14ymedio, an independent website founded by Yoani Sánchez, a prominent critic of the Cuban government, as she tried to interview displaced survivors of a freak tornado that tore through parts of Havana in January. The Cuban government on the same day did not allow this reporter into the country ahead of an unsanctioned LGBTI march that took place in Havana on May 11.

“If I return to the island, I fear that they will initiate a process that deprives me of my elementary rights as a human right because in Cuba, in the name of national security, atrocities are committed and the established laws are shamelessly violated,” writes Valdés in his letter.

Yariel Valdés González was a reporter for Tremenda Nota, the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba, before he left the country in 2018. He took this picture of the Pride, transgender and Cuban flags at Mi Cayito, a gay beach east of Havana. (Photo by Yariel Valdés González/Tremenda Nota)

Valdés has told the Blade a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer has determined his asylum claim is valid.

Valdés had his first appearance before an immigration judge on May 23. He has told the Blade his second hearing is scheduled to take place on June 13, but Valdés said he does not know when ICE will release him on parole.

Valdés says he plans to pursue his case from his aunt’s home near Miami.

“I don’t know anything,” he told the Blade on May 31, referring to when ICE may release him from custody.

Advocacy groups challenge long detentions of asylum seekers in La.

Valdés remains in ICE custody amid continued outrage over the Trump administration’s overall immigration policy.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in August 2018 condemned the separation of migrant children from their parents after they entered the U.S.

Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a 25-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador, died in a Texas hospital on June 1 after ICE released her from the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana last week filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration over the denial of parole to hundreds of asylum seekers who are in ICE custody in Louisiana and Alabama.

A press release the two organizations issued on May 30 notes the New Orleans ICE Field Office, which oversees the facility in which Valdés is currently detained, granted parole in only two of the 130 asylum cases it heard in 2018. The press release also notes the lawsuit “calls attention to the impact of the dehumanizing treatment — especially the excessive use of solitary confinement and inadequate health care — received daily in immigration prisons, many of which are operated for profit.” 

“Like hundreds of people being held in multiple ICE detention centers in the Deep South, our asylum-seeking plaintiffs are being punished for following the law,” said Luz Virginia López, a senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They followed the legal checklist by first presenting themselves at a point of entry, and this is how America is paying them back — with cruelty and disrespect for the law.”

Valdés has told the Blade that some of the Cuban asylum seekers with whom he is detained have been in ICE custody for nearly a year.

The Louisiana Detention Watch Coalition with the support of the Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday will hold a protest against the prolonged detentions of asylum seekers in Louisiana and the denial of parole that would allow them to pursue their cases out of ICE custody. Valdés on Tuesday told the Blade that relatives of some of the Cuban asylum seekers with whom he is detained are planning to participate in the protest that is scheduled to take place outside the New Orleans ICE Field Office.

ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett on Wednesday told the Blade in a statement that ICE “is committed to upholding an immigration detention system that prioritizes the health, safety, and welfare of all of those in our care in custody, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals.”

“ICE facilities utilize applicable health care standards drawn from the American Correctional Association (ACA), the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), ICE National Performance-Based Detention Standards, and ICE Family Residential Standards to ensure that quality care is provided to detainees,” she said.

ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox noted the agency “does not comment on pending litigation.”

“That said, absence of comment should in no way be construed as agreement with any of the allegations,” he added. “ICE conducts activities in compliance with federal law and agency policy.”

ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa told the Blade in March that “comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive until they leave ICE custody.”

“All ICE detainees receive medical, dental and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care,” she said.

Zamarripa told the Blade in response to questions about more than a dozen gay men and trans women who allege they suffered abuse while at the Otero County Processing Center that ICE spends more than $250 million a year “on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.” She also noted a 2015 directive requires ICE personnel to provide detainees with access to hormone therapy and other trans-specific health care.

“ICE is committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement,” Zamarripa told the Blade.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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