TAMPA, Fla. — Yusmier Mesa hasn’t lost hope, but he’s afraid.
He left Cuba four years ago and reached the United States by traveling through Latin America. It was a long and dangerous journey, similar to one that José Manuel Garces made.
Mesa and Garces don’t know each other, but they share more than one thing in common. Both Cubans were released by United States immigration officials after crossing the southern border with a form known as I-220A. That’s a form that allows the holder to have a temporary driver’s license and a work permit. But it doesn’t grant even temporary permission to remain in the U.S. for urgent humanitarian reasons.
Under a recent immigration rule, the I-220A designation may now become a ticket to deportation.
Cubans have long been granted immigration benefits under the 1966 Adjustment Act, which allowed them to apply for permanent residence after staying in the U.S. for over a year. But in early September, the federal Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that Cubans granted I-220As are not eligible to apply for such benefits.
The court’s decision has raised concern among Cubans, even though the ruling can be appealed and the Department of Homeland Security has the authority to change the status of such immigrants.
Mesa, who lives in New Tampa, feels his efforts to obtain humanitarian parole have been in vain from the moment he crossed the border on the morning of Aug. 10, 2021.
“The only thing they asked me is if I was afraid to return to my country,” said Mesa, 40. “‘Yes, of course,’ I said. What Cuban doesn’t have fear of returning to the island?”
Mesa said he has nightmares in which he sees himself being deported to Cuba. When he received the I-220A, he had no idea that it could pose a legal obstacle. Mesa sent his residency application anyway, one year and a day after arriving, but he hasn’t received a response. He got a work permit and holds a valid Florida driver’s license. A year and a half ago, he opened his own business.
“I still feel mentally imprisoned because there isn’t a single day when I wake up without thinking if I will be able to become a resident of this country,” Mesa said.
In Cuba, he worked six days a week as a vendor in Havana. But in recent years, his criticism of the Cuban regime had become harsher. Mesa began to be seen as a traitor and counterrevolutionary. He decided it was time to leave.
Mesa sold his belongings for $2,500; some friends loaned him money. He left Cuba in 2017 for a journey that spanned four years and 13 countries. He flew from Cuba to Guyana, on the northeastern side of South America, a country that doesn’t require visas. He continued his journey to Suriname, Brazil and Uruguay, where he stayed for nearly two years, working various odd jobs and saving money. He then moved to Chile for another two years.
To reach the United States, he traveled through Peru, Ecuador and the Darién Gap, a jungle between Colombia and Panama, before reaching Central America and the Texas border.
If he gets deported, Mesa said he won’t be able to support his family here and in Cuba, where he has three children.
Advocates and lawyers in Tampa said the court’s decision places thousands of Cubans at risk and has the potential to hinder family reunions. Some Cuban exiles also said that it makes no sense when immigrants are admitted at the border and then are placed at risk of deportation.
Earlier this month, dozens of Cubans demonstrated at Dale Mabry Highway near Columbus Street to draw attention to the issue.
Milton Márquez, an immigration attorney in Tampa, said the recent decision regarding I-220As has caused “major havoc” for Cubans and the immigration system. Over 200,000 Cuban migrants may have received I-220As, Politico reports.
“It would have been easier to accept I-220A as parole to allow Cuban nationals to adjust under the Cuban Adjustment Act,” Márquez said.
Many Cubans who do have parole are eligible to seek free and low-cost legal assistance, making their path a lot easier to navigate, said Danielle Hernández, an immigration attorney in Ybor City. But the reality can be totally different for I-220A holders, she said.
“The clients with the I-220A have to hope for a policy change by the administration who can issue a parole after the fact or rely on a very costly asylum path,” said Hernández.
Garces left Cuba on Feb. 11, 2022, on a flight to Nicaragua. He crossed through Central America and Mexico until he reached the Arizona border nearly a month later. A dentist in Cuba, Garces, 29, decided to seek new opportunities after he was unemployed for at least a year after criticizing the handling of social services on the island.
He said the only question they asked him at the southern border related to Cuba was whether he wanted to contact the Cuban embassy in the United States.
“I said no,” Garces recalled.
He was released four days later with the I-220A.
“At that moment, I didn’t know what it really meant, but when I later started researching, I understood what it was,” said Garces, who lives in the Carrollwood area.
José Fernández, director of immigration services for Catholic Charities in St. Petersburg, said many Cubans who come to him seeking guidance or advice don’t understand what an I-220A means, he said.
“They feel completely disappointed,” said Fernández.
But, like many Cubans with the I-220A and ongoing asylum claims, Garces submitted his application over a year ago but only received a response from immigration authorities requesting documentation of his parole, which he said he doesn’t have. The Miami Herald recently reported that some Cubans have received unsolicited Immigration and Customs Enforcement paroles, the necessary pathway to apply for a residency or green cards.
Danet Rodríguez, 31, a leader of Plantados de Tampa, a group that coordinates anti-government initiatives and shares news about Cuba on Facebook and WhatsApp, knows Cubans who can’t reach economic stability because of their immigration status. She said others experience stress and uncertainty due to the fear of deportation.
Garces said he doesn’t feel completely free because he can’t pursue his dreams. He wants to study to obtain U.S. validation of his dentistry degree, but without permanent legal status he can’t access financial aid programs or qualify for in-state college tuition.
For now, he works Monday to Friday as an assistant dental hygienist in Tampa. He has worked hard since he arrived in this country, he said, bought a used car, and paid $7,000 in less than six months to the people who loaned him money to come to the United States.
“I want to contribute to society,” said Garces, while holding his I-220A. “But I don’t have the same opportunities as others do.”