CUTLER BAY, Fla. – A Washington Blade reporter from Cuba who was released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody last week says he can now live without fear of persecution.
“I really feel that I am alive now,” Yariel Valdés González told the Blade on Sunday from the Miami suburb of Cutler Bay where he now lives with his aunt, María Valdés and his uncle, Julio Valdés. “It is a wonderful feeling to feel free and to be able to take control of your life and above all knowing that you will not be persecuted again because of your ideas or your work.”
Valdés, 29, entered the U.S. on March 27, 2019, through the Calexico West Port of Entry between California’s Imperial Valley and the Mexican city of Mexicali. He asked for asylum based on the persecution he suffered in Cuba because he is a journalist.
Judge Timothy Cole last September granted Valdés asylum, but the ruling was appealed to the Virginia-based Board of Immigration Appeals, which the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review oversees. The Board of Immigration Appeals on Feb. 28 dismissed the challenge.
Valdés had been in ICE custody since he applied for asylum in California. He was held at three ICE detention centers: The privately-run Tallahatchee County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss.; Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility in Plain Dealing, La., and the privately-run River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La.
This reporter drove Valdés from River Correctional Center to New Orleans on March 4 after ICE released him from its custody. They spent the night in the city’s French Quarter.
Valdés visited Bourbon Street and had drinks at Cafe Lafitte in Exile, which is one of the country’s oldest gay bars, while watching this year’s Super Bowl halftime show during which Shakira and Jennifer Lopez performed. Valdés also danced at Oz, a nearby gay nightclub.
Valdés and this reporter on March 5 flew to Miami International Airport where he reunited with his aunt and uncle.
Valdés since his release has begun to reveal some of the harsh conditions he experienced while in ICE custody. They include the shackling his hands, legs and waist each time ICE transported him to another detention center.
One of these trips was a flight from California to Mississippi.
It takes roughly five hours to drive between Tallahatchee County Correcional Center and Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility. River Correcional Center is nearly 200 miles southeast of Bossie Parish Medium Security Facility.
Valdés said guards at Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility, where he was detained for eight months before his transfer to River Correctional Center, subjected him and other detainees to racist and xenophobic abuse. Valdés also told the Blade that ICE protocol requires detainees who are sick to be placed in solitary confinement.
Deputies at Bossier Parish Medium Security Center on Aug. 2, 2019, used force against detainees who were protesting their prolonged detention and sprayed pepper spray. Valdés confirmed these accounts during a series of messages he sent to the Blade on that day.
Valdés said guards removed microwaves and televisions from detainee dorms as a form of collective punishment. He also told the Blade that air conditioning units periodically did not work, even on days when the outside temperature was well over 90 degrees.
ICE earlier this year ended its contract with Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility. Mother Jones last month reported a private company that ICE uses to inspect its detention centers found the use of force on an unconscious detainee during the Aug. 2 incident “was a clearly inappropriate application of force.”
“It has been an exhausting fight,” Valdés told the Blade.
“But this country has opened its doors to me because justice exists and because true democracy will no longer be just a utopia for me,” he added.
Valdés since he arrived in Florida has begun the process of applying for a Social Security number.
He spent several hours on South Beach with this reporter on Friday afternoon after having breakfast with Tony Lima, the chief operating officer of Arianna’s Center, a South Florida-based organization that serves transgender women.
Valdés on Sunday went to a supermarket and department store with his aunt. He said they ate at a Kentucky Fried Chicken before they returned home.
“The only thing I want to do now is to start over again from scratch, getting rid of everything negative in my life in order to focus on my new future and on all of the opportunities that I have in this country with the support of the thousands of people who have shown their love and solidarity with me,” Valdés told the Blade.