Dozens of demonstrators picketed outside U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement’s New Orleans Field Office and blocked traffic on Loyola Avenue for about a half-hour Monday in a protest against the pending deportation of a Cuban asylum seeker with severe health issues.
New Orleans police arrested 10 of the protesters who sat down in heavy afternoon traffic at the Loyola-Poydras Street intersection and draped themselves in banners reading “No more family separation!” and decrying ICE as “U.S. Customs and Ethnic Cleansing Enforcement.”
The protest, organized by the Congress of Day Laborers, came as federal immigration authorities appeared to be preparing to send Yoel Alonso Leal back to Cuba. Activists chanting “a life is on the line” said that deporting Leal would be life-threatening because doctors have found signs of lung cancer and he also suffers from severe gout.
Police booked those arrested with obstructing a public place, a misdemeanor.
Protesters chanted “Free Yoel!” and “White silence leads to violence” outside the building that houses ICE’s local office. Signs and chants decried the agency — some in explicit terms — while others wore T-shirts declaring, “I don’t believe in borders” in Spanish.
NOPD and state troopers arrested the protesters blocking the street. Looked like a dozen-plus arrests. A few Saints fans taunted protesters with “build the wall” chants as they were handcuffed. pic.twitter.com/fi1Ivjp4tZ
— Bryn Stole (@brynstole) September 9, 2019
Several drivers angrily confronted the protesters, and a group of Saints fans chanted “Build the wall!” — a reference to Trump’s signature anti-immigration slogan — as police handcuffed those blocking traffic near the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
A federal immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals have both rejected Leal’s request for asylum. Attorneys for Leal have said he fled political persecution in Cuba and fears reprisals from the Cuban government if sent back.
Leal “already had his day in court and was ordered removed by a federal immigration judge,” said Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman.
Among the demonstrators were several physicians who signed a letter decrying Leal’s medical treatment while in ICE custody. Activists accused ICE officials of denying him access to appropriate medical treatment, including a biopsy to examine the growth found in his lungs.
Cox said “any claim that this individual — or any other individual — is denied medical care while in ICE custody is factually inaccurate.”
Several Democratic members of Congress, including Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, have contacted ICE to express concern about Leal’s case. Richmond, in an Aug. 21 letter, asked for details about Leal’s medical condition and whether ICE had allowed him to seek treatment outside its detention facilities.
Jalina Porter, a spokeswoman for Richmond, said Monday that ICE replied to the letter but didn’t provide any substantive answers.
Alberto B. Hernandez, who came to the United States illegally from Toluca, Mexico, has been living the American dream in Louisiana for more th…
Leal is one of a dozen plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the near-blanket denial of parole to asylum seekers held in detention in ICE’s New Orleans Office’s jurisdiction, which includes Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU of Louisiana filed the lawsuit.
Asylum seekers granted parole are allowed to live with relatives or other supporters in the United States while their asylum claims are processed by immigration courts. Parole, once commonly granted to asylum seekers, has become rare under President Donald Trump.
Roughly 75% of eligible asylum seekers held by ICE’s New Orleans Field Office were granted parole in 2016, under President Barack Obama’s administration, according to documents filed in the case. That figure dropped to just 1.5% in 2018 and has dropped further this year, with every single parole request denied.
Leal’s wife and his two adopted children live in South Florida and are all U.S. permanent residents, according to his supporters. Leal’s requests for parole were denied three times.
Luz Lopez, a senior supervising attorney at the SPLC, said Leal’s serious health issues, his U.S.-based family and his lack of any prior criminal record should have made him a prime candidate for parole. Instead, he’s spent more than seven months moving between detention centers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
“This is horrible. It’s as if he fled one horrible situation to come into another, escaping one government that tortured him to another government that seems ambivalent about what happens to him,” said Lopez. “The government just isn’t following its own rules anymore when it comes to asylum seekers.”
ICE has held a rapidly growing number of immigrant detainees — many of them asylum seekers — in Louisiana jails and prisons over the past year, largely by contracting with local sheriffs and private prison operators. The move has made central and north Louisiana a growing center of federal immigration and asylum proceedings.
A steadily declining number of state inmates over the past two years has helped Louisiana lose its unwanted status as the nation’s incarcerati…
Leal is currently being held at an ICE detention facility in Etowah, Alabama, but had previously been held at ICE’s Pine Prairie facility, a large detention center in Evangeline Parish in central Louisiana.
Activists supporting his case said they received indications over the weekend that ICE plans to deport Leal in coming days. Cox, the ICE spokesman, declined to comment, citing an agency policy of not discussing future operations.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, the federal judge presiding over the case, rejected the Trump administration’s request to throw out the case last week, instead issuing a preliminary injunction ordering ICE’s New Orleans Field Office to individually review all parole requests from asylum seekers held in the Deep South.
That decision won’t affect Leal’s pending deportation. Because his asylum claim has been rejected by federal immigration courts, he’s no longer eligible for parole. Attorneys for Leal have also filed an appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but that court has yet to intervene.