March 4, 2021 at 9:39 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Celebrating a year of freedom
Yariel Valdés González on South Beach on March 6, 2020, a day after he reunited with his family in Miami. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WILTON MANORS, Fla. — Yariel Valdés González began his new life in freedom in this country a year ago today.

Yariel, who asked for asylum in the U.S. because of the persecution he suffered in Cuba as a journalist, spent nearly a year in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody until his release from the River Correctional Center, a privately-run detention center in Louisiana’s rural Concordia Parish, on March 4, 2020. 

The details of that day remain vivid: The torrential downpour that drenched us as we ran to my car in the detention center’s parking lot, the Lady Gaga songs I played on my iPhone as we drove away, my left arm that I fractured a few hours earlier and dancing at Oz on Bourbon Street once we arrived in New Orleans. 

Yariel over the last year has proven that immigrants really make our country great. He lives here in Wilton Manors and works at a local restaurant. Yariel contributes to the Washington and Los Angeles Blades, and is becoming an active member of the Wilton Manors community. Our country is far better off when people like Yariel have the opportunity to live their best lives in freedom and commit themselves to making it better for us all.

One of the ways Yariel has chosen to make a positive contribution to his new country is to document his experiences in ICE custody. The Blades in the coming weeks will begin to publish what I have dubbed his “detention diaries” that detail the inhumane treatment he suffered at the hands of an agency in serious need of oversight and reform. 

One of them details how he spent upwards of 12 hours shackled and handcuffed as ICE transported him from the privately-run Imperial Regional Detention Facility in California’s Imperial Valley to another privately-run facility, the Tallahatchie County Correctional Center in Tutwiler, Miss., as though he was a dangerous criminal. Yariel in another diary entry details the desperation he felt during the five months he needlessly spent in ICE custody after the ruling that granted him asylum was appealed. He also discusses the xenophobia and racism that he and other detainees experienced from guards at the Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility in Plain Dealing, La.

I arrived in South Florida on Tuesday, three days after I was on assignment in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s odious Migrant Protection Protocols program were finally able to enter the U.S. It will undoubtedly take time for the Biden administration to undue the policies that subjected Yariel and countless other asylum seekers to needless harm and abuse, but thank goodness this process has begun.

Elections really do matter.

It is also crucially important to hold the previous administration — and especially those within it who crafted and implemented these harmful policies that have done irrevocable damage to our country’s reputation around the world — accountable. ICE, the agency that mistreated Yariel and countless others while in their custody, must also be held to account.

We remain committed to doing our part to support immigrants and asylum seekers through our work as journalists. It is also my fervent hope that Yariel’s decision to write about his experiences in ICE custody will spur some much-needed change.

In the meantime, today is a day to celebrate my dear friend and everything he has accomplished since his release a year ago. Yariel continues to prove that immigrants make our country great, and I am proud to stand by his side. 

¡Viva la libertad!

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

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