Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Families fight for refugees

U.s. Immigrants Trapped In Prison
Families fight for refugees
Bahamians jailed winners of visa lottery after boat stalled

Originally posted on February 25, 2006

By Pete Skiba, & David Plazas,

Ihovany Hernandez's Cuban refugee wife sits in a Bahamian prison while
he rallies support to get her out.

The island's government threw Marialis Darias-Mesa, and David
Gonzalez-Mejias, both dentists, into prison in April after the boat
taking them and 16 other Cuban migrants stalled in Bahamian waters. They
were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and handed over to Bahamian

"She left Cuba to find freedom," said Hernandez, who came to the U.S.
two years ago and settled in Cape Coral. "They have her incarcerated
like a common criminal."

Darias-Mesa and Gonzalez-Mejias had obtained permission several years
ago to migrate with their families to the United States. Their families
left Cuba, settling in Cape Coral and Tampa. But the two dentists,
valued professionals in Cuba, were prevented from making the trip.

Facing miserable conditions at home, the pair decided to sail to the
United States, joining 16 other professionals who wanted to leave their

Hernandez has visited his wife 19 times since she was locked away. He
described the conditions in the Bahamian prison as nothing short of

No water. As many as 400 people crowded together. No clean clothes. No
soap. No toothpaste.

On his visits, Hernandez brings his wife supplies.

Hernandez is now pinning his hopes to free his wife on friends and
politicians. He's gathered in his corner U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV,
R-Fort Myers; Cape Coral businessman Kiko Villalon; Gov. Jeb Bush; and
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.

All have put word out to the Bahamas that they would like Darias-Mesa
and Gonzalez-Mejias released. Mack and Ros-Lehtinen said in a news
conference Thursday that unless the Bahamian government acts soon to
free them, they would begin pushing Congress for economic sanctions.

"It is horrible that the Bahamian government has chosen to keep legal
immigrants to this country apart from their families," Mack said Friday.
"We are going to do our best to free them."

Darias-Mesa and Gonzalez-Mejias won an American-government sponsored
lottery for visas. The annual lottery allows 20,000 Cubans to obtains visas.

But winning a visa marks the winner as against Cuban President Fidel
Castro, Hernandez said. The winners become blackballed from work.

Hernandez, a meat market manager, escaped. He now works for DeConte
Electric Inc. in Cape Coral as an electrician. His 5-year-old daughter
remains in Cuba with her grandparents.

The Cuban government held onto Darias-Mesa and Gonzalez-Mejias because
professionals are in short supply in the island nation.

Their attempt to flee by boat landed them in the custody of the Bahamian
government, which has an agreement with the Castro government to return
Cuban nationals.

Hernandez hopes that with pressure from the U.S. government, the
Bahamians will see past that agreement.

"There's just uncertainty," Hernandez said. "We're told they are going
to be released, and they don't release them."

A Bahamian official said Thursday the government would make a decision
soon about whether to send the two dentists back to Cuba or allow them
to go to the United States.

Dayami Inda, Gonzalez-Mejias' wife, lives in Tampa with her 17-year-old
son and 11-year-old daughter. She left Cuba with them in 2004.

Her husband tried the desperate boat ride because he was not allowed to
leave, said Inda, who has not been able to visit her husband.

"It really affected my daughter — she lost a year in school because she
is traumatized," she said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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