On August 16, 2019, a married Cuban couple, both doctors, arrived at the US border post in Nogales, Arizona, to seek asylum after being labeled and jailed as dissidents by the Cuban government.
But that was unfortunately not the end of the hellish trip out of Cuba for Merlys Rodriguez Hernandez and her husband Lazaro. They would spend more than a year of each other, trapped in separate detention centers and a cruel and capricious Byzantine American immigration system.
Need an example? Last year Lazaro’s request for protection was granted and Merlys’s was rejected even though they both presented almost identical evidence and documents for their asylum claims. The only difference was that their case was heard by different immigration judges. Lazaro was just lucky.
But so many of the 1.3 million asylum seekers waiting for their cases to be heard are unlucky. They are stuck in a limbo that can last for years, making them and the American people less secure.
I had the chance to speak recently with Lazaro and Merlys from their temporary home in Kentucky, with Ian Matthew Kysel, one of the attorneys who championed Merlys’ case alongside a team of other attorneys and students. in law from Cornell Law School. Although Lazaro is a radiologist and Merlys is an intensive care doctor, neither are currently licensed to practice medicine and the only thing that keeps food on the table is Lazaro’s building work and the generosity of his loved ones. and its charities.
The story of Merlys and Lazaro is representative of the struggles of so many other asylum seekers and, I believe, not representative of the country America has always aspired to be.
When our nation was founded, America was the refuge of settlers seeking to shake off the yoke of the British Empire. And we have poured out this blessing ever since, guided by the words inscribed at the base of our Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your crowded masses yearning to breathe freely, The miserable waste of your teeming shore.
In 1948, Congress enacted the first US refugee law, allowing the admission of 400,000 Europeans moved during the Second World War. Congress has created successive laws to codify our current asylum system, which allows refugees who fear persecution in their home country to reside in the United States.
We have welcomed Hungarians and Cubans fleeing the Communists in the 1950s, Vietnamese and Cambodians and Iranians fleeing war and revolution in the 1970s and 1980s and now Afghans threatened by the Taliban.
It was the right thing to do and it turned out to be the smart thing to do as study after study shows that the short-term costs of refugee resettlement are eclipsed by the long-term benefits they bring America in the form of the businesses they create, the economic growth they stimulate, and the taxes they pay.
Recently, the Biden administration proposed administrative changes to reduce the backlog of asylum claims, but that will almost certainly not be enough to bring order to this messy system. Ultimately, the White House, Congress, and the American people must decide that we will not allow what happened to Lazaro and Merlys to happen to others. And I hope sharing their story here – much of it told in their own words – will help inspire our leaders to act.
Why they left Cuba
Merlys and Lazaro were sent on a “rescue mission” to Venezuela against their will. But once there, they spoke out against their supervisor’s demands to reuse dirty medical supplies, falsify medical records and question patients about their political beliefs. So, Merlys and Lazaro were forced to return to Cuba and according to Merlys, told me through a translator:
“They took away our medical licenses so we couldn’t work as doctors in Cuba. When we talked about how they violated the few rights we have in Cuba, my husband and I were detained, beaten and abused. We were being persecuted everywhere, in our home, wherever we went, and we were afraid it would escalate and we would be in prison forever. So, we decided that we had to leave Cuba.
Lazaro said “we didn’t flee Cuba because we thought we were going to have a better life in the United States. We escaped because we were afraid and wanted to be protected ”.
Lazaro and Merlys were successful in obtaining a visa for Nicaragua under a program usually reserved for small businesses. It was the start of an arduous overland journey through Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico by bus, car, horseback and on foot. Upon arriving at the Mexican border town of Ciudad Hidalgo, Merlys said:
We were assaulted in our taxi. The taxi took a different route than it was supposed to take, and finally three people came out of nowhere and they had clearly prepared for this. So they took everything we had. They stole everything we had, and when they finished we were very scared.
Arrival in the USA
Under the Trump administration’s previous immigration policy, in which they only allowed a certain number of asylum seekers to enter the country at any one time, Lazaro and Merlys were both returned in Mexico to await the possibility of claiming asylum after arriving at the Nogales, Arizona border post in August 2019. When they returned to the United States and were allowed to claim asylum, they were inexplicably separated and sent to different detention centers. They won’t see each other again for 13 months.
Merlys contracts COVID-19 in detention
Lazaro was released from detention in June 2020 and was ultimately granted asylum later that year, but Merlys would remain in Eloy, Arizona until October 2020. Stuck in an overcrowded detention center at the start of the pandemic of COVID-19, Merlys has seen others stricken with the disease but has not been allowed to help. She said:
“They [detention staff] knew I was a doctor but they wouldn’t let me do anything. It was really frustrating when someone, for example, passed out in the detention center and I knew what I had to do to help them. But they wouldn’t let me touch anyone or they wouldn’t let me help with anything.
In June 2020, Merlys contracted COVID-19 and was placed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, where she battled the disease for 40 days, losing 25 pounds in the process. Merlys says she is still feeling the effects today:
“I knew the care that a patient with an illness like this should have. I didn’t know about COVID-19 as an illness because I was in the detention center when it spread, but I knew what a patient suffering from something like this should receive as medical care and I didn’t. have not received. And I think due to the lack of medical care I received there are so many side effects that I still have to this day. I have the impression, for example, that I have lost a lot of memory. And I don’t feel things as much as I used to. And I think it was because of the lack of oxygen I had for so long due to COVID and the attention I received. It was very hard and very frustrating for me.
Merlys and Lazaro reunite
Since Merlys was released from custody in October 2020, she and Lazaro have been living with relatives in Kentucky. But she has no work permit and no certainty as to when or if she will be granted asylum. At present, his call is awaiting action in the 9e Circuit, which in itself is an indictment of the entire asylum process. According to Merlys lawyers, if the federal government simply referred his case back to the original immigration judge, his case would be resolved much faster given that Lazaro has now been granted asylum based on a fundamentally set of facts. identical. in the case of Merlys. Instead, US tax dollars and federal court resources are wasted, and Merlys lives in fear and uncertainty.
Aspirations for life in the United States
When I asked Lazaro where he and Merlys saw each other in five years, he simply replied:
“We both want to study. We see ourselves studying so that we can exercise our careers here in the United States. We believe it is the only country that can protect us from whatever is happening in Cuba. And we see ourselves growing professionally, studying and being ourselves here. “
A message for President Biden
This summer, the Cuban government brutally cracked down on the biggest protests in years of Cubans in distress over COVID, corruption and poor economic conditions. Merlys watched these protests unfold from here to the United States and she said, “I’ve watched everything that’s going on in Cuba on TV and I think, how the hell could you say that a person from Cuba is not persecuted?
Despite the difficult treatment Lazaro and Merlys have endured since arriving in the United States, their feelings for the country have not changed. Lazaro says: “It is a great country which offers you a lot of opportunities.”
And when I asked Merlys if she could share a thought with US President Joe Biden, she made a simple plea:
“We fled Cuba because we were afraid, because we can no longer live there. I would like him to know that no one wants to leave their country or their family, we are just afraid. I hope he will please put a hand on his heart and just watch the suffering of the Cuban people, asylum seekers and all immigrants to the United States.