On August 16, 2019, a married Cuban couple–both doctors–arrived at the U.S. border crossing in Nogales, Arizona seeking asylum after they’d been branded and jailed as dissidents by the Cuban government.

But this unfortunately wasn’t the end of the hellish journey out of Cuba for Merlys Rodriguez Hernandez and her husband Lazaro. They would spend more than one year apart, stuck in separate detention centers and a byzantine U.S. immigration system that is both cruel and capricious.

A USA flag flutters in the wind. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
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Need an example? Last year, Lazaro’s request for protection was granted and Merlys’ rejected even though they both presented almost identical proof and paperwork for their asylum claims. The only difference was that their case was heard by different immigration judges. Lazaro just got lucky.

But so many of the 1.3 million asylum seekers waiting to have their cases heard are not lucky. They’re stuck in a limbo that can last years, making both them and the American people less safe.

I had a chance to speak recently with Lazaro and Merlys from their temporary home in Kentucky, along with Ian Matthew Kysel, one of the lawyers who has been championing Merlys’ cause alongside a team of other lawyers and law students at Cornell Law School. Though Lazaro is a radiologist and Merlys is an intensive care doctor, neither is currently allowed to practice medicine and the only thing keeping food on the table is Lazaro’s construction work and the generosity of relatives and charities.

Merlys and Lazaro’s story is representative of the struggles of so many other asylum seekers and, I believe, unrepresentative of the country America has always aspired to be.

At our nation’s founding, America was the refuge for colonists seeking to throw off the yoke of the British empire. And we’ve paid forward that blessing ever since, guided by the words inscribed at the base of our Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

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In 1948, Congress enacted America’s first refugee legislation, authorizing the admittance of 400,000 Europeans displaced during World War II. Congress created successive laws to codify our current asylum system, which provides a path for refugees who fear persecution in their home countries to reside in the United States.

We welcomed Hungarians and Cubans fleeing the communists in the 1950s, Vietnamese and Cambodians and Iranians escaping war and revolution in the 1970s and 1980s and now Afghans at risk from the Taliban.

It was the right thing to do and it turns out it was the smart thing to do because study after study shows that the short-term costs of resettling refugees is dwarfed by the longer-term benefits they bring to America in the form of the businesses they create, the economic growth they spur and the taxes they pay.

Recently, the Biden administration proposed administrative changes to ease the backlog of asylum cases, but that almost certainly won’t be enough to bring order to this disordered system. Ultimately, the White House, Congress and the American people need to decide we won’t allow what happened to Lazaro and Merlys to happen to others. And I hope sharing their story here–much of it told in their own words–will help spur our leaders to action.

Why They Left Cuba

Merlys and Lazaro were sent on a medical “relief mission” to Venezuela against their will. But once there, they spoke out against their superior’s demands to reuse dirty medical supplies, forge medical records and interrogate the sick about their political beliefs. So, Merlys and Lazaro were forced to return to Cuba and according to Merlys, told to me through a translator:

“They withdrew our medical licenses so we couldn’t work as doctors in Cuba. When we spoke out about how they were violating the few rights that we have in Cuba, my husband and I we were detained, beaten and mistreated. We were persecuted everywhere, in our home, every place that we went, and we worried that this thing was going to escalate and that we were going to be in jail forever. So, we decided that we had to leave Cuba.”

Lazaro said “we didn’t escape Cuba because we thought we were going to have a better life in the U.S. We escaped because we were afraid and wanted to be protected.”

Fleeing Cuba

Lazaro and Merlys managed to get a visa to Nicaragua under a program typically reserved for small businesses. That was the beginning of an arduous overland journey through Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico by bus, car, horse and foot. Once they made it to the Mexican border town of Ciudad Hidalgo, Merlys said:

We were mugged in our taxi. The taxi took a different road than the one it was supposed to take, and finally, three people came out of nowhere and they clearly had this prepared. So, they took everything we had. They stole everything we had, and when they finished, we were really scared.

Arriving in the U.S.

Under the Trump administration’s previous immigration policy, in which they only allowed a certain number of asylum seekers to enter the country at a given time, Lazaro and Merlys were both sent back to Mexico to await the chance to request asylum after they first made it to the border crossing at Nogales, Arizona in August 2019. When they returned to the U.S. and were allowed to apply for asylum, they were inexplicably split up and sent to different detention centers. They would not see one another again for 13 months.

Merlys Contracts COVID-19 in Detention

Lazaro was released from detention in June 2020 and eventually granted asylum later that year, but Merlys would remain detained in Eloy, Arizona until October 2020. Stuck in a crowded detention facility at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Merlys saw others struck with the disease but wasn’t allowed to help. She said:

“They [detention staff] knew that I am a doctor but they didn’t let me do anything. It was really frustrating when somebody, for example, would faint in the detention center and I knew what I had to do to help them. But they wouldn’t let me touch anyone or they wouldn’t let me help with anything.”

In June 2020, Merlys contracted COVID-19 and was placed in an isolation cell for 23 hours a day, where she battled the disease for 40 days, losing 25 pounds in the process. Merlys says she is still feeling the effects today:

“I knew the care that a patient who is suffering from a disease like that should have. I didn’t know COVID-19 as a disease because I was in the detention center when it propagated, but I knew what a patient experiencing something like that should receive as medical attention and I didn’t get it. And I think because of the lack of medical attention that I got, there are so many side effects that I still have to this day. I feel, for example, that I lost a lot of my memory. And I don’t smell things as much as I did before. And I think this was because of the lack of oxygen that I had for so long due to COVID and the attention that I got. That was very tough and very frustrating for me.”

Merlys and Lazaro Reunite

Since Merlys was released from detention in October 2020, she and Lazaro have been living with relatives in Kentucky. But she has no authorization to work and no certainty about when or if she will be granted asylum. Right now, her appeal is awaiting action in the federal court system’s 9th Circuit, which in and of itself is an indictment of the whole asylum process. According to Merlys’ lawyers, if the federal government would just kick her case back down to the original immigration judge, her case would be resolved much quicker given the fact that Lazaro has now been granted asylum based on a set of facts that are basically identical to Merlys’ case. Instead, American taxpayer dollars and federal court resources are being wasted and Merlys is stuck living in fear and uncertainty.

Aspirations for Life in the U.S.

When I asked Lazaro where he and Merlys saw themselves in five years, he said, simply:

“We both want to study. We see ourselves studying so that we can practice our careers here in the U.S. We think that this is the one country that can keep us safe from everything that’s going on in Cuba. And we see ourselves growing professionally and studying and being ourselves here.”

A Message for President Biden

This summer, the Cuban government brutally suppressed the largest protests in years from Cubans distressed over COVID, corruption and poor economic conditions. Merlys watched these protests unfold from here in the U.S. and she said, “I watched on TV everything that is going on in Cuba and I think, how on Earth could anyone say that a person from Cuba is not being persecuted?”

Despite the difficult treatment that both Lazaro and Merlys have endured since arriving in the U.S., their feelings about the country haven’t changed. Lazaro says, “this is a great country that gives you a lot of opportunities.”

And when I asked Merlys if she could share one thought with America’s president, Joe Biden, she made a simple plea:

“We ran away from Cuba because we were afraid, because we cannot live there anymore. I would like him to know that nobody wants to leave their country or their family, we are just afraid. I hope that he would please put a hand on his heart and just look at the suffering of the Cuban people, people seeking asylum and all immigrants in the United States.”

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