Editor’s note: Yariel Valdés González is a journalist from Cuba who has been granted asylum in the U.S. He spent nearly a year in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody until his release from the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La., on March 4.
Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte, 36, and Dayana Rodríguez González, 31, had never been apart in the nearly five years since they began dating. Their lives were one until Nov. 3, 2019, when they both applied for asylum in the U.S. at a port of entry in El Paso, Texas, and they were separated a short time later.
Moreno and Rodríguez were placed into different cells as their entry into the country was processed.
“They locked me up in a small, lonely place,” Moreno told the Washington Blade on June 9 during a telephone call from the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center in Basile, La., where she remains in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. “I was there for two days and my partner was transferred the day after we arrived.”
“We lost all ties,” Rodríguez told the Blade during a telephone interview from Phoenix on June 10 where she now lives. “I didn’t know where she was and she didn’t know where I was. On the fourth day, they moved me at night to the detention center and there I was, still unsure whether they would send her there.”
The next day, they saw each other for a few minutes in the El Paso Service Processing Center’s dining room, since they were not in the same dorm. Rodríguez and Moreno did whatever they could to see each other.
“They scolded us twice because I was the last one in line in order to wait for her to come and eat together,” recalled Rodríguez.
Both devised a strategy to see each other in the library and even during Catholic Masses held in the El Paso facility.
“Yanelkys made the requests for visits a couple of times and they allowed us to be together only once,” said Rodríguez. “All of the couples were together in the same room, one next to the other. We couldn’t touch each other, just a kiss at the entrance and a kiss at the exit and with an officer watching over us the entire time.”
Perhaps this story would not have been so bitter if the two women had been married because ICE, in theory, allows a married asylum seeker to sponsor their spouse once it grants them “derivative” status. This process allows them to stay together as long as they present a marriage or civil union certificate.
But Moreno and Rodríguez are citizens of Cuba, an island where same-sex marriage is not yet legal. The government’s policies and social attitudes also emphasize discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
Their immigration cases are the same, but Moreno in December was once again separated from Rodríguez. She was sent more than 900 miles east of El Paso to the South Louisiana ICE Correctional Center, where she currently remains in ICE custody. Rodríguez was detained in El Paso until Feb. 4 when she was released on parole and a $7,500 bond.
The two women saw each other for the last time through a door’s glass window, sending their love to each other with signs after a conversation that would define both of their lives forever. Moreno was gone the next morning and the frustration of not being able to say goodbye to her partner is painful to this day.
Couple suffered homophobia, police harassment in Cuba
Moreno and Rodríguez’s families never accepted that two women could fall in love and live together. The prejudices that still persist in Cuba and especially in Zulueta, a small town in the center of the country where they lived, were constant hurdles to their social lives and their life together as a couple.
“My parents divorced because of my sexual orientation,” said Moreno. “My father is the typical Cuban man, who said that his children could not be homosexual. My sister was the only one who always supported me.”
Rodríguez was kicked out of her home when her family found out she was in a romantic relationship with another girl.
“They took all of my things from me and that was terrible,” she said. “It was raining and also in the middle of a blackout. I had to collect my things and go to her home. It was something we did not expect.”
Rodríguez’s family’s decision to disown her was compounded by her neighbor’s accusatory looks, so she and her partner did not even dare to hold hands in the street. Moreno told the Blade that such intolerance suffocated her “because there (in Cuba) homosexuals are not well regarded, neither by family, nor by the authorities, we are quite discriminated against. I felt bad because in the end we are also good people. We have rights and the government constantly violates them. We cannot have our own family.”
Because of the impossibility of getting married, gay and lesbian Cubans cannot adopt children.
The current labor law does not protect transgender people, and they can only change their gender and photo on identity documents if they undergo sex-reassignment surgery. Members of Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police have also been accused of targeting LGBTQ Cubans.
Rodríguez in her asylum claim says a police officer constantly followed her and Moreno
“There was an officer named Sosa, who appeared wherever she was,” writes Rodríguez. “He was very rude to us. He insulted us on two occasions by saying that we were not setting a good example for society or children.”
“On the other occasion, we were sitting in the park during some local celebrations, holding hands, without disrespecting anyone and he also came and took us to the police station because, according to him, we could not do that,” continues Rodríguez. “He did not agree that we were a couple or that we showed it in public. He fined us 500 pesos ($20) because he didn’t want to see us together on the street any more. It was like a warning and we were detained for 73 hours. The officer in the police station told everyone that we were lesbians and they also started making fun of us and calling us names. And the truth is that we felt very bad about all that. Life for us was very difficult there.”
Tired of this familial and societal rejection that Cuban governmental institutions also perpetuate, this young couple exclusively told the Blade they fled the country in order to be able to walk the streets without fear. Now, after seven months in the U.S., they are terrified that Moreno will be deported back to Cuba.
Moreno has already been denied parole twice, which would have allowed her to pursue her asylum case outside of ICE custody.
“ICE’s two responses to my request for parole have told me that I am a flight risk,” said Moreno. “The first was on Jan. 5 and a group of lawyers prepared the second request … it turned out very well, with everything they ask for: A very complete request and they denied me again. They set a date for an interview that they never did.”
ICE’s own directives mandate an asylum seeker must be released while awaiting their asylum hearing if they pass their credible fear interview and background check, prove they are not a danger to society and show they are not a flight risk. The parole rate for ICE’s New Orleans Field Office, which has jurisdiction over Louisiana, dropped from more than 75 percent in 2016 to zero percent in 2019, according to Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s ruling that granted a preliminary injunction in a class-action lawsuit that other asylum seekers filed.
“I meet all the requirements they ask for: I entered through a (port of entry), I have someone who will receive me and I have a credible positive fear,” said Moreno. “I met with my deportation officer when I was denied parole for the second time and they did not know how to give me a convincing explanation. They just told me that when they were evaluating my case they determined that I was not going to show up to court hearings.”
Liza Doubossarskaia is a legal assistant for Immigration Equality who prepared Moreno’s second parole application under the supervision of Bridget Crawford, a lawyer who is the group’s legal director. Doubossarskaia in an interview with the Blade said ICE’s denial of Moreno’s parole applications is discriminatory based on the fact that another LGBTQ person who is not a blood relative will receive her upon her release.
“There is no provision in any document that the person receiving the immigrant must be his or her close relative,” said Doubossarskaia. “In the parole request, we affirm that her family does not support her because she is gay, but she does have ties to this country because she has a friend who is willing to take her in and the support of various organizations, including Immigration Equality, which will ensure that she attends immigration appointments. She is also not a danger, because we presented her criminal record and it is clean. ICE never explains why she is a flight risk.”
ICE declined to comment to the Blade on Moreno’s case.
“When we had the second negative response on parole, it was as if they were throwing a bucket of cold water at both of us,” said Rodríguez. “It shows in the tone of her voice, in her physique when I can see her on a video call that all that confinement and this time apart is affecting her. It is affecting both of us.”
Moreno is still awaiting her second court hearing, which is scheduled to take place on July 28.
She said her greatest fear is her final appearance before an immigration judge “because it is a lot of stress, for all the time I have been here, for all we have lived through. That moment will be very difficult.”
Rodríguez is terrified her girlfriend will be deported to Cuba “and everything is over.” Her voice cracked on the phone when she discussed this possibility.
“Today I ended the call with her in the morning crying because this absence has affected me a lot,” Rodríguez told the Blade. “The calls are also short because we have to save the little money that you have to communicate. When she tells me that she feels bad and ends up crying, the truth is that it makes me very bad.”
Congressman urges ICE to release LGBTQ detainees
Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley in a letter he sent to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf last week requested ICE release Moreno and all other LGBTQ detainees.
Quigley described the detention of these detainees in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic as “dangerous and irrational.” More than two dozen other members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed his letter.
Quigley last week told the Blade during a telephone interview that he considers this issue a matter of “basic human decency” and says ICE is “ignoring” social distancing and other guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and not “providing protective equipment or hygiene products to detainees.” The Illinois Democrat also said LGBTQ detainees in ICE detention centers “are treated worse under these conditions than the general population, and no one is treated well.”
Moreno told the Blade the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center can house around 1,000 people.
She said around 190 female detainees remain at the facility. Moreno told the Blade that more than 50 of the 72 beds in the dorm where she lives are occupied.
“We are many for such a small room,” said Moreno. “The food is not good, one day a week it improves a little, but it is generally bad.”
“Cleanliness is not very good either,” she added. Now, since there are so few of us, the cleaning supplies have improved, but when I was in the center it was very difficult to get a roll of toilet paper or a shampoo. They don’t give soap here. We have to shower with shampoo and the commissary is very expensive. “
Doubossarskaia confirms the detention center in which Moreno lives now has room to promote social distancing, but staff have chosen not to enforce it.
Moreno told the Blade a group of female detainees from different housing units were transferred to her dorm in early May. Moreno said an officer at the detention center said it was to make “better use of space” when someone asked about it.
There were 871 ICE detainees with confirmed coronavirus cases as of deadline. ICE’s website says 7,364 of the 24,713 people who were still in their custody have been tested for the virus.
ICE says it has evaluated its detained population based on the CDC’s guidance for people who may be at increased risk for serious illness as a result of the coronavirus. ICE has released more than 900 people from their custody after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk and national security concerns.
Despite the fact there are no confirmed coronavirus cases in her detention center, Moreno says she does not feel safe because the transfer of detainees into the facility has not stopped during the pandemic.
“Not all officers wear masks or gloves,” she said. “They say they do take precautions when they enter the center, but I am not sure. They are the ones that go in and out and do not protect us. We are required to be six feet away from each other and when we go to recreation or to the dining room there are only the detainees from one dorm. We do not mix with the others.”
Moreno also says she has experienced several instances of discrimination at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center which the GEO Group, a Utah-based company operates, both at the hands of her fellow detainees and staff.
“I went to go to the bathroom twice and they told me that I couldn’t go in because they were sorry to bathe with me,” Moreno told the Blade. “I decided to bathe alone from that moment in order to avoid a problem. It has happened to me with the officers when I ask them, for example, for a paper and they don’t give it to me, but they give it to someone else who is behind me. I feel discriminated against because of things like that.”
Doubossarskaia said she believes ICE does not do enough to protect LGBTQ people at its facilities.
“We have heard many stories of detainees who suffer homophobia after their detention,” she said.
Moreno told the Blade that some of the officers at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center “insult us, humiliate us.” Moreno also said she never thought she would have been “detained for so long.”
“In fact, my partner and I thought that it would be a maximum of two months and that we could go out, get married, make a life together, but none of this has happened,” she lamented. “We can only talk on the phone, but the separation is hard and very sad. I get depressed and cry a lot. “
The Blade asked what Moreno misses the most and without hesitation she said her freedom, and above all, her partner.
“I want to see her, embrace her …”, she says, followed by a long pause.
“I don’t feel like Yanelkys is well,” Rodríguez told the Blade. “In fact, we are seeking psychological help. She has already had two appointments with a professional because she is very stressed and I find her very downcast (…) and they (ICE) are not interested in her life.”
Michael K. Lavers contributed to this article.