Searching for Peace: The difficult and dangerous journey to seek asylum in the United States, Part II
Editor’s note: This two-part blog series is a brief first-person look at the journey taken by a person seeking asylum in the United States. It was written by Adrián Rodríguez Alcántara, a plaintiff in the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial County’s class action lawsuit, Rodríguez Alcántara vs. Archambeault.
My name is Adrián Rodríguez Alcántara, and I am from Cuba. My partner, Yasmani, and I are gay, and I am HIV positive. Unfortunately, Cuba is a dangerous place for people like us. In October 2018, Yasmani and I made the difficult choice to flee from our home, our country and our families, in search of peace and safety.
After crossing South and Central America and waiting nearly six months in Tijuana for our “number” to be called, which would allow us to request protection, we were finally able to ask for asylum in the United States on January 15, 2020.
We arrived at the San Ysidro, California, port of entry where U.S. immigration officers led us to a place known as the “hielera,” or icebox, to wait to be processed. This is where the nightmare of our detention in this country started.
In the icebox, the officers took all our belongings and our outer clothing and then separated us. I told the officers that I am HIV positive, but seemingly they weren’t concerned about my condition. They gave me a silver-colored blanket and a thin mat and put me in solitary confinement. They never told me why I was being held.
The cell was small, and the door had a window the width of my face. In the cell, there was a sink to drink water that was connected to a toilet bowl to use the bathroom.
As soon as they locked me in, I felt suffocated. My anxiety got worse, and I begged them to let me out. I had no idea where they had taken Yasmani. I screamed for him. I was so frightened. I started to cry until I heard someone yell my name. I could see Yasmani’s reflection through the window. Knowing that he was near calmed me down. But knowing that Yasmani is claustrophobic, I realized he was suffering even more.
I cried for several days. I didn’t know if they were going to deport me or how long they were going to keep me locked up.
Alone and with nothing to distract me, my mind went to the worst scenario. At one point, I thought that maybe they would poison us with toxic gas through the ventilation system.
To calm myself, I would sit crossed legged on the floor, facing the white wall. I didn’t move for what seemed to be hours.
I asked God to give me strength.
I felt weak, depressed, uninterested in eating or drinking water – much less when they offered me frozen burritos for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I never knew whether it was day or night because they never turned off the lights. I didn’t feel time pass nor did I feel connected to planet earth.
After seven days in the icebox, immigration officers opened my cell door. They put me in handcuffs and shackles with a chain around my waist. I was so afraid that I would make a mistake or say something wrong that would give them enough reason to put me back in solitary confinement that I froze.
They transferred me to a place I later learned was the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California. The immigration officers never told me where they were taking me, nor did they say where Yasmani was. I was so happy to be out of the icebox, but I was also really scared not knowing where my partner was.
The workers at the detention center were the first to tell me where I was, but they still didn’t tell me anything about Yasmani. Finally, other detainees told me they saw Yasmani in another unit. Miraculously, they assigned us to the same unit.
After a few weeks being detained at Otay Mesa, the coronavirus pandemic started. We heard it was important to physically distance and limit contact with other people. But all of us in detention shared bathrooms, tables, telephones, cells and common areas so we couldn’t keep apart. We were completely exposed.
I also heard news that people with certain medical conditions, like HIV, were at greater risk if they get the virus. Yasmani was really worried about me. When we first started hearing about cases at Otay Mesa, the guards wouldn’t give us masks.
At the end of March, the detention center was put on lockdown to fight the virus. They cancelled court dates, family and attorney visits but we still didn’t have masks.
Many detainees started a hunger strike, asking for masks. Yasmani and I wrote a letter to then-Senator Kamala Harris reporting what was going on at Otay Mesa. Weeks of the pandemic went by before they gave us masks.
We spoke with different organizations and reporters hoping our circumstances would be heard by the public. I met Jacqueline Ramos and Monika Langarica of the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC) in April 2020. After speaking with them, we had hope that the ACLUF-SDIC could help us.
In addition to the pandemic, we were still dealing with the difficulties in requesting asylum while detained. We were afraid that any misstep would be a reason to deport us.
Neither the detention center officers, nor the ICE agents gave us information about our case or about releasing us. When we asked them for information, they threatened us: “If you keep on asking, I, myself, will deport you!”
Fortunately, we had our attorney, Erin Barbato, from the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the University of Wisconsin. Staff at the clinic were the first to give us information on our case and how to get out of detention. Even with the advantage of having an attorney, it wasn’t easy to make progress on our case. And we knew we were among the lucky ones because we had legal support. Most of our friends who were detained had to navigate the process alone or with very little help.
We were locked up in Otay Mesa for a total of three months. Those were lost months. The whole time, Yasmani never saw a judge and our asylum cases did not move forward.
The ACLUF-SDIC added us to their class action lawsuit challenging the detention of people like ourselves at Otay Mesa during the coronavirus pandemic and we were able to leave Otay Mesa without posting bail. The day we were released, I was so full of emotion, but I didn’t cry. I had no more tears.
I came to the United States with my partner searching for peace and safety. Now here, I hope to take care of my health, and I dream about getting married and having a home where I can really rest after our difficult journey. We went through a lot to get to this point. But out of everything we lived through during our journey, the most difficult thing to overcome was the time we were locked up in Otay Mesa. It was psychological and emotional torture. It had such an impact that we have gone into therapy to recover from that experience. We have been fortunate to have support and examples of brotherly love–including from the family in Tijuana who housed us for six months, members of the ACLUF-SDIC and University of Wisconsin legal clinic teams who helped us get out of detention, and the people who housed, fed, and helped us travel to reunite with our families once we got out.
But I cannot think of our experience without remembering so many others who fled their countries because of life-or-death circumstances, who are still in detention, with no help, or are waiting to exercise their right to request asylum in the United States. I ask that a fair and compassionate system be reimagined for the people who have left everything behind in search of peace.