Monday, July 26, 2010

Political prisoners in Spain confronted with maze of immigration rules

Posted on Sunday, 07.25.10

Political prisoners in Spain confronted with maze of immigration rules

Cuban ex-political prisoners in Spain face an uncertain immigration
status and can be caught in a maze of rules.

Cuban refugee Jorge Pérez Fernández has the promise in writing: The
Spanish government will grant him political asylum or residency within
six months of his arrival in that country.

Fourteen months after he landed in Madrid, he has neither -- a harsh
lesson on the vagaries of Spanish migration laws that he has already
passed on to the former political prisoners who arrived from Havana in
the past two weeks.

``I told them to stay alert,'' said Pérez, who launched a hunger strike
last Monday to push for a resolution of his case: He's an undocumented
migrant who can't work legally and gets no government aid.

``Economically speaking, I am totally defenseless,'' said the
42-year-old architect from the eastern Cuban town of Banes who arrived
from the Guantánamo naval base and now lives in Spain's Canary Islands.

Jorge Graupera, a Cuban-born Madrid lawyer who specializes in
immigration cases, is not surprised by Pérez's case or by the many
questions surrounding the status of the 20 ex-prisoners and 100
relatives who arrived from Havana since July 12.

``There's a lot of confusion, even among immigration lawyers. We have
never seen anything like this . . . because this has jumped outside the
[Spanish] laws,'' said the lawyer, whose firm, Legal City, has offered
to advise the former prisoners and relatives.

Graupera noted the Cubans arrived under a Spanish government agreement
to give immediate entry to any of the 52 political prisoners that Cuba
has promised to free, and who wish to move to Spain -- not as part of
any standard immigration proceedings.

Spanish officials say they have offered the Cubans the best immigration
status available, Assisted International Protection. That allows them to
apply for permanent residency (which includes a work permit), the
possibility of returning to Cuba if Havana permits it, and Spanish
citizenship in four to five years.

Spain also has offered assistance with rent, clothes, food, transport,
jobs, education and health services, as well as pocket money -- 85.27
euros a month per couple (about $110), 18.58 for children under 18 and
32.79 for older dependents.

Some of the ex-prisoners have said they might instead apply for
political asylum, which could make it easier to reunite in Spain with
other relatives now still in Cuba, said Gustavo Fuentes, a Cuban-born
Madrid lawyer who is advising Pérez.


Further complicating the issue: At least four of the ex-prisoners have
said they might want to move on to the United States. But they would not
qualify for U.S. political asylum once they have obtained residency or
asylum in Spain. And applying for U.S. migrant visas would take at least
three to five years, lawyers said. If they become Spanish citizens, they
would not need U.S. visas for trips.

Relatives of some of the 32 dissidents still in Cuban jails have said
they do not want to go to Spain but might consider leaving for the
United States -- though that seems to be another tough option.

It usually takes three to five years for the U.S. diplomatic mission in
Havana to issue entry permits as political refugees to those who
qualify, Berta Soler said. Her husband, Angel Moya, is one of the 32,
serving a 20-year sentence.

Obtaining U.S. migrant visas could take even longer, and a third way of
entering the country, under ``humanitarian parole'' status, is reserved
for those in seriously bad health or other special circumstances.

Miguel Sigler said it took him two years to win humanitarian parole for
his jailed brother Ariel, a dissident who is paraplegic and bound to a
wheelchair. Ariel was freed June 12 and is to fly to Miami on Wednesday
for medical treatment.

Soler said officials at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana told her
that applications for political refugees could be expedited for any of
the 52 who wished to leave for the United States. The U.S. diplomatic
mission in Havana, however, has declined to confirm making such a promise.

A total of 4,800 Cubans were admitted to the United States with refugee
status in fiscal year 2009, which ran from Oct. 1, 2008, to Sept. 30,
2009, according to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of
Immigrations Statistics.

What's more, the Cuban government can delay U.S. departures even further
by withholding the required exit permits, known as White Cards, even
after all other travel documents are in order.

Jorge Olivera, for example, had his papers in order but was missing his
White Card even before he was swept up in a 2003 crackdown that sent 75
dissidents to prison. He was freed 21 months later because of ill
health, but he remains in Cuba today because the government still
refuses to issue him a White Card.

Pérez, the Cuban in Spain who still lacks documents, did not need a
White Card because he fled Cuba in a small boat, fearing arrest for his
dissident activities in Banes. He was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard
on April 16, 2008, and was taken to the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo
because he had a reasonable fear of persecution if he was returned to Cuba.


On June 8, 2009, he and seven other Cubans held in Guantánamo were flown
to Madrid under an agreement negotiated by the U.S. and Spanish
governments. They carried a State Department document saying Madrid
would give them asylum or residency in no more than six months.

The eight were scattered to provincial cities, with Pérez winding up in
the Canary Islands. The other seven were awarded the lowest level of
residency and work permit, which is good for only one year but can be

Pérez was not so lucky.

He applied for political asylum and was denied. He was told to apply for
temporal residency under ``exceptional circumstances'' and was denied.
He appealed and was denied.

Under an assistance package arranged by the State Department, he
received $700 a month during his first six months in Spain from the
International Organization for Migration, a nongovernment group based in
Washington. After the six months, he has received nothing more, and
nothing at all ever from the Spanish government.

Government officials finally told him last week that he would be granted
residency for five years, his lawyer Fuentes said. One problem: The
documents will not be ready in four months. He launched his hunger
strike July 19.

That's why, Pérez said, when the recently released Cuban prisoners began
arriving in Spain, he quickly phoned them at their one-star Welcome
hostel in an industrial suburb of Madrid.

``I told them my experiences, told them to look in the mirror and think
about what they really want, and then fight hard to get it,'' Pérez told
El Nuevo Herald by phone from the Canary Islands.

It was easy for him to dial the Welcome hostel.

That's the same place where he stayed after he arrived in Madrid.

• This was the second of two stories on the difficulty Cuban political
prisoners face in Spain.

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