Yariel Valdés González, a Washington Blade contributing writer from Cuba, is enduring inhumane treatment while in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Louisiana.
Valdés, a professional journalist who works as a freelancer for the Blade, is seeking asylum based on the very real persecution he has suffered at the hands of the Cuban government. An asylum official who interviewed Valdés at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Center in Tutwiler, Miss., on March 28 determined he had a “credible fear of persecution or torture” in Cuba. His family in Cuba continues to receive death threats from government officials because of his work with “media outlets of the enemy.” Early last year, the Cuban government ramped up its persecution of journalists, even detaining Blade International News Editor Michael Lavers at the airport before denying him entry and sending him back to Miami. The State Department’s Human Rights Report notes Cuba’s persecution of journalists. But those seeking refuge in the United States are finding that under President Trump, they not only won’t be welcomed, they may be imprisoned.
In a 2019 cover story for the Blade, Valdés described the horrific conditions of his confinement at the Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility in Plain Dealing, La. Other Cuban asylum seekers at Bossier — some who have been held for nearly a year —greeted him with, “Welcome to hell.”
Detainees are treated like prison inmates. And remember: Seeking asylum is not illegal. Valdés has followed the legal process and his claims of persecution and fears of torture back home have already been deemed credible by the government. Yet he describes a harrowing life behind bars in which each day is a struggle to survive.
In his own words: “Each day inside of it is a constant struggle for survival that takes a huge toll on my physical, psychological and above all emotional capacities. More than 300 migrants live in four dorms in cramped conditions with intense cold and zero privacy. … My personal space is reduced to a narrow metal bed that is bolted to the floor, a drawer for my things and a thin mattress that barely manages to keep my spine separated from the metal, which sometimes causes back pain. The most painful thing, however, is the way the officers treat us.”
He reports the guards routinely disconnect the microwave, the television and deny detainees ice. When they complain, guards tell them, “This is not your country.”
The day begins at 5 a.m. with a lineup followed by breakfast. Meals are insufficient and dinner is at 4 p.m. leading to hunger pains by bedtime. Soup is used as currency among detainees. Medical services are inadequate or non-existent. As one detainee put it, “One who gets sick is put in punishment cells, isolated and alone, which psychologically affects us. People sometimes don’t say they don’t feel well because they are afraid they will be sent to the ‘well.’ In extreme cases they bring you to a hospital with your feet, hands and waist shackled and they keep you tied to the bed, still under guard. I prefer to suffer before being hospitalized like that.”
This is what the government is doing in our name and with our tax dollars: treating asylum seekers who are fleeing violence and persecution as criminals.
Judge Timothy Cole on Sept. 18 granted asylum to Valdés, but weeks later ICE appealed that decision and kept him in custody. Just last week, ICE transferred him and more than 30 other detainees from Bossier to the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La. LaSalle Corrections, a private company, operates the facility where Valdés is now held. His case is now before the Board of Immigration Appeals, which is overseen by the Justice Department.
It’s now been four months since a judge deemed Valdés worthy of asylum here. The stories of these asylum seekers are harrowing and I urge our audience to read them and to demand reform. There are several LGBTQ and other advocacy groups that could help, including the Human Rights Campaign, Immigration Equality, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and the Southern Poverty Law Center. I urge them to review this case, add their voices to the fight and assist us and his lawyer in freeing Yariel.
In his own words: “I hope that I can continue my career as a journalist from here and continue the fight for a more democratic Cuba for those 11 million Cubans who have resisted and resist this dictatorial regime that has been in power for six decades.”
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.