When José Antonio Hernández Viera was awakened early Friday morning, he and his belongings were stuffed into a vehicle and driven away from Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center. The 40-year-old Cuban asylum seeker had hoped to leave immigrant detention in Louisiana. But not like this.
He texted photos to his wife Angela Mairielys Lazo Torres from the car, with chains visible in the frame. “I’m desperate — ready to scream — not only because of what could happen to him but also because he can’t fly,” she texted NBC.
Only a week before, Dr. Allen Keller, an associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine and co-founder of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, had evaluated Hernández Viera in Louisiana. After more than 12 hours of evaluations over the phone and in-person, he had declared, under penalty of perjury, that deporting the asylum seeker to Cuba “poses an imminent threat to his life.”
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“Standards of humanity, common decency and medical necessity warrant that Mr. Hernandez Viera should immediately be released from immigration detention and allowed to rejoin his family,” Dr. Keller wrote.
At the time of evaluation, Hernández Viera was unable to walk without a walker. He was barely a week out of hip replacement surgery, after which he said he experienced inadequate medical treatment back at Pine Prairie — including being left overnight in a wheelchair and trying not to eat because he was afraid no one would help him use the toilet.
Dr. Keller wrote it was “crucial” for Hernández Viera to be released from detention. Instead, he was loaded into a vehicle and driven to Houston, where he is awaiting deportation.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has previously said he is unlawfully present and "received all appropriate legal process" before being ordered removed.
“I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen or what we will be able to do to reunite as a family again,” Lazo Torres texted Monday night.
Hernández Viera, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter fled Cuba after alleged persecution because of his political opinions. He was reportedly detained multiple times and beaten once in front of his family; Dr. Keller believes he was “a victim of torture.”
Lazo Torres and her two daughters, including the 3-year-old, came to the U.S. before Hernández Viera and were released from detention. They’re now living in Florida and Lazo Torres is on the road to becoming a legal permanent resident.
Meanwhile, despite having no criminal convictions, establishing a credible fear of persecution in his home country, and having a sponsor in the United States, Hernández Viera was held in Department of Homeland Security custody for more than a year as he pursued his case. A judge with a recent 83.8% asylum denial rate found that he had not met the burden of proof to be granted asylum, and months later his appeal was denied.
“I was dumbfounded reviewing his case and talking to him about what happened to him that he lost his asylum claim,” Dr. Keller said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center — which took on his parole request last year to try to get him out of detention while he awaited his immigration hearing — has exhausted every possible legal option to stop his deportation, according to Laura Rivera, an SPLC attorney. They worked with a volunteer attorney to request a stay of his removal, which was denied. They rallied to file a habeas petition — originally intended for a Louisiana district court — in Texas, claiming his detention was unlawful because of lacking medical care.
“Despite all that, ICE is still planning to put him on a plane tomorrow when he can’t even walk on his own,” Rivera said.
On Monday, a judge in the Southern District of Texas ordered ICE to provide Hernández Viera with 30 days worth of medication, a wheelchair and a walker, Rivera said. But the judge did not order his release.
Now, as Hernández Viera stares down removal as soon as Tuesday, his wife says she doesn’t know what will happen to him — but she knows he won’t be treated well.
“He’s a traitor to them,” she said of the Cuban government.
“What am I going to say to my 3-year-old baby?” Lazo Torres added. “How am I going to explain that I don’t know when we’ll be with her daddy again?”
Hernández Viera’s last opportunity to remain in the U.S. hinges on congressional intervention, according to Rivera. For months, Lazo Torres has appealed to Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American from Florida whose own relatives were admitted into the U.S. as refugees. When asked what Rubio has done to help her, Lazo Torres replied “absolutely nothing.”
“Our office is aware of the situation and we have had numerous communications with Mrs. Lazo Torres, including as recently as last week,” said a spokesperson for Sen. Rubio.
Since Hernández Viera was removed from Pine Prairie on Friday, advocates have reached out to other members of Congress from around the country to plead for intervention. A few senators' offices are inquiring into the matter, Rivera said, but she has not heard of any positive developments.