Barbara, 28, and her husband Wilson, 29, are Cuban asylum-seekers who have been detained for over six months in various locations in Arizona. They fled conditions that were a threat to their lives and well-being in Cuba, and since arriving to Arizona have been confronted by constant challenges in detention facilities. Though they did not spend much time in Border Patrol custody, what they experience in Eloy and La Palma offers a glimpse into the many indignities faced by immigrants outside of the public eye.
Barbara, 28, and Wilson, 29, are from Havana, Cuba, where they lived and worked until early 2018. The couple met in college and has been together since then, though they —like many Cubans—never legally married. Barbara is an engineer and Wilson is a chef, and although neither agreed with the Cuban political system or had much optimism about future hopes for upward mobility, they enjoyed their work and their expansive network of family and friends.
In late 2017, Barbara’s father was targeted by the Cuban government, forcibly removed from his home, and detained for days in a Cuban prison. He returned under strict orders to cease his “anti-governmental” activities and to not talk about what he had experienced. The family was scared and tense after this incident, both because of the trauma of what Barbara’s father had experienced and also because they were certain their movements and activities were being constantly observed.
Barbara had never been particularly vocal about her feelings about the Cuban government at work, but nor had she hidden them. In the spring of 2018, her supervisors called her into their office to question her about her political beliefs and her willingness to join the work chapter of a political group, and Barbara refused to offer praise for the government or join the group. She was fired the same day. That entire spring and summer, she spent her days looking for other jobs—first in the engineering field, and then at any job that she thought would hire her. She was consistently turned away from every job she applied to because, she is certain, her name had been put on a list of people opposed to the government. In spite of this, her political beliefs remained consistent, and she refused to bend to the constant pressure to change her mind.
Later that year, the neighborhood police broke into Barbara’s house and took her by force to the local station. For days, she was detained and placed in a solitary cell without food, water, light, or access to a restroom in order to force her to change her mind. She was released after five days, had lost multiple pounds of her body weight, was severely dehydrated, and ill from the unhygienic conditions that included fecal matter in her tiny cell. Meanwhile, Wilson was also receiving threats from the police and had lost his job, leaving the couple with no way to support themselves.
They fled Cuba in early 2019, and arrived to Nogales in the summer of 2019, where they waited for three months to present at the port of entry, and their number was called on August 20. From there, the couple was taken to the Eloy Detention Center, and separated into different pods. They had gathered extensive documentation about the threats they had faced in order to prepare for their asylum cases, but the physical, emotional, and legal conditions in Eloy have made things exceedingly challenging.
They are able to call Cuba and their families to obtain additional evidence, but the calls are extremely expensive: $5 a minute (they both work in the detention center kitchen and make $1/day, meaning that a minute-long conversation requires five days of work). The two were assigned different judges; Wilson had his final court date in early January, and lost. He is in the process of appealing his case. Meanwhile, Barbara had carefully assembled her documents and her case in preparation for a late January final court date, submitting them well in advance of the court’s deadline. However, due to a clerical error, the judge did not receive his copies of the necessary paperwork and could not proceed with the hearing that day. As a result, Barbara’s court was rescheduled to late April, meaning she is detained for an additional three months before learning of any outcomes of her case.
Until January, the couple had been able to visit one another for an hour every Friday. In October, they decided to get married in detention, a small cause for celebration in the midst of difficult days. However, Wilson was transferred to another facility in Arizona in January, and they have not been able to see each other since then. Barbara feels increasingly hopeless and the weight of detention has been incredibly challenging.
Barbara is close to giving up her case, though she manages to get through each day by reading romance novels, making art, and being with her friends who are also detained. She regularly notices when people are in particularly hard places and thinks of ways to cheer them up—requesting visits from the KBI visitation program, asking friends she knows on the outside to get photos of their loved ones to surprise them with, and leaving them artwork she’s created. Wilson misses cooking a lot, and he passes his time dreaming up new recipes he one day hopes to make.
The couple knows that if they returned to Cuba, they would almost certainly be “disappeared.” The police has gone to both of their families’ houses to inquire after them, and physically threatened their mothers to get the information that Barbara and Wilson have fled the country. The punishment for having done so is severe.
If they win their asylum cases or any form of protection, they hope to move to Las Vegas, where they have friends. Wilson would like to work in a kitchen there and Barbara would—after this experience—become a counselor to help others struggling with difficult situations.