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Cuban ICE detainee called 'abuelo' is free after 11 years. Now he doesn't have a home

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 2/5/2021 Monique O. Madan, The Miami Herald

Feb. 5—Dehydrated and frail, the 71-year-old man in a bright red inmate jumpsuit trudged through the streets of Miami seeking shelter.

Two days before, Heriberto Delvalle had been released from the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after spending almost half his life behind bars. Officials dropped him off at a motel he didn't feel safe at, so he decided to take off.

"It's the first time I've tasted freedom in almost three decades, so I just walked and walked," Delvalle told the Miami Herald, his voice cracking.

Every few minutes, he squinted at the sweaty palm where smeared blue ink revealed the address to Camillus House, one of Miami-Dade County's largest homeless service providers.

"It felt like I would never get there," the Cuban-born man added about his five-mile trek. "I fell twice, stayed at a park and strangers gave me water but I kept walking until I found it."

The detainee's unexpected release by ICE last week came about three weeks after the Miami Herald published his story chronicling his time inside a place he refers to as "purgatory" — the Krome detention center in West Miami-Dade.

Delvalle, who was convicted of attempted murder in the early 90s, completed a 15-year sentence in a Florida prison, only to be transferred straight into ICE custody, where he remained for 11 years. Because Cuba won't take him back, for more than a decade the U.S. government has cited an exemption that allows them to hold "especially dangerous" people they consider a "threat to the public." In his case, ICE cited a mental illness that Delvalle and his lawyers have repeatedly challenged.

He became such a permanent presence at Krome, inmates took to calling him "abuelo."

But things changed on Jan. 26, when ICE decided to release Delvalle, stating that his age and a bevy of preexisting health conditions place him at an increased risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic, federal records obtained by the Herald show.

And yet, where one odyssey ended, another began.

"He's still in limbo if you ask me. I mean, now he's homeless," said Juan Carlos Gomez, director of Florida International University's immigration law clinic, which represents dozens of homeless immigrants who struggle with mental health.

"This is not necessarily an ICE problem, but a societal problem," he said. "There could've been a mechanism by a state, federal or local government. A mechanism to ensure there is ongoing, safe medical care; just basic human services for these people, but they don't exist."

Gomez added: "Someone should never have to choose between being in prison or getting your freedom but becoming homeless. There needs to be a third option for this vulnerable population."

For someone like Delvalle, options are slim to none. Because of his age and delicate health, getting a job he could actually do would be difficult. And because of his undocumented status, the jobs to pick from are even more limited. Public benefits aren't an option and resources available are few.

For now, Delvalle remains at a motel near Miami International Airport after Camillus House leaders placed him in the queue for a next available bed at the shelter. Due to the pandemic, hotel rooms are being utilized as quarantine spaces for the homeless. In order to secure a spot, a person must test negative twice for COVID-19 and quarantine for 10 days. Delvalle is still waiting for his results.

"I'm not complaining. Something is better than nothing," Delvalle told the Herald in a socially-distanced, in-person interview from his hotel room.

His smile was wide, his eyes glossy.

The interview took place after almost a year of the Herald shadowing him behind bars via telephone, video chats, text messaging and snail mail.

"I'm trying to find some humor in all of this," he said as he pulled out a Ziploc bag with six dead roaches inside — one of his biggest phobias.

"I call this place "el palacio de las cucarachas," he said with a chuckle, which translates to "the palace of the cockroaches."

"If I don't kill them and make sure they stay that way, I won't be able to sleep. Put it this way, I sleep with the lights on. But hey, at least I have a roof over my head and I haven't seen any mice like my neighbor has."

Solitary confinement while in ICE custody

ICE officials have called Delvalle's case "exceptionally rare," with only a handful of similar cases in existence. Prior to his release, the agency said it made repeated attempts to deport him or place him in a facility with "security precautions particular to his needs."

The agency would not specify what that setting would look like, though immigration experts say it would compare to an independent or assisted living facility. However, because those types of arrangements for undocumented immigrants with significant criminal records don't exist, Delvalle was left stuck in limbo.

Immigration policy experts and advocates contended that Delvalle's time in ICE custody was just an extension of his already-served prison sentence and a major gap in U.S. immigration policy, specifically for a subset of undocumented immigrants who struggle with mental health issues.

In 2012, Delvalle was diagnosed with persecutory type delusional disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), according to federal documents obtained by the Herald.

People with that type of delusional disorder believe that they are being mistreated, or that someone is spying on them or planning to harm them. People with OCD struggle with unwanted obsessions, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings, according to medical experts.

For years Delvalle has challenged his mental health diagnosis, attributing his "paranoia" to ICE's "decision to lock me up in isolation for almost half of my 12 years here."

ICE declined to comment on Delvalle's account of being placed in isolation, saying the agency "cannot provide any additional information on this case."

Delvalle — a stickler for keeping several copies of every document about his case — says he has never received an explanation for being isolated.

"Who wouldn't go crazy?" he said.

Ultimately, he was released from detention as a result of a California federal judge's blistering court order back in April — Fraihat vs. ICE — demanding that vulnerable populations that meet a specific age and health criteria be released from ICE detention during the pandemic.

Delvalle has always met those requirements due to his long-time diagnosis of coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, diabetes, and other heart conditions, Kevin Sattler, an assistant field office director for ICE in Miami, wrote in Delvalle's custody review.

"The government of Cuba has denied Mr. Delvalle's repatriation on three separate occasions, and removal is not likely in the foreseeable future," Sattler said. "Based on this review, a decision has been made to release Mr. Delvalle on an order of supervision and enroll him in the Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program."

ICE's ATD program is used to monitor and supervise certain foreigners in the U.S. more frequently than those released with annual supervision. If the immigrant fails to adhere to the conditions of enrollment, he or she could end up re-arrested, detained once again.

When ICE dropped Delvalle off at a hotel— short-term housing aimed at getting him into a shelter—his immediate reaction was fear.

"They lied to me, told me I was going to the doctor and then dropped me off at a random hotel instead.

"They took off my handcuffs and told me I was free, to go to the hotel, but would you trust the agency that imprisoned you for 11-plus years?" he said. "Hell no."

Homeless in Miami-Dade County

As he stared at himself dead in the eye in his new hotel's mirror, Delvalle can't help but see himself as one of the most "fortunate."

"Estas vivo," he whispers to himself in Spanish as he takes a sip of his instant black coffee made with hot water from the grimy bathtub spout. "You're alive and that's what matters."

He took a bite of a small cinnamon muffin, walked toward the windows, and looked at the swaying palm trees.

"You know what the first thing I appreciated about freedom?" He giggled and lifted up part of his sweater's sleeve to show off his red, painful burn: "My suntan."

"I forgot how long it had been since I actually felt the real sun on my skin. My two-day journey did a great job at reminding me."

Delvalle credits his "lucky charm" for his second chance to enjoy the little things: a Camillus House volunteer.

Every day, Camillus House provides 100 homeless people with food and water. Once that cap is reached, anybody that trickles in is turned away and told to come back the following day.

"Heriberto [Delvalle] was No. 102," said the volunteer, who spoke to the Herald on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the case. "I had just turned away No. 101. But how could I have ignored this guy in a prison jumpsuit, shaking, dragging his legs?

"That's when I leaped and shoved four turkey sandwiches into his hands along with loads of water bottles. I didn't think twice."

He said he let Delvalle into the building, helped find him a set of clothes and let him bathe. He then spoke to a supervisor who was able to arrange a spot back at the hotel he had walked from in order to quarantine.

"By that time he was a lot more coherent. He had eaten and was able to tell me his story. When I heard it, I recognized that he was the guy the Miami Herald had written about," the volunteer said. "What I never expected was seeing the same guy, right in front of me, dirty and completely homeless, with nothing but his Krome jail bracelet on."

Delvalle's response of walking away from an apparent safe haven, according to mental health experts who specialize in incarceration and health, is "actually very rational," said Eric Reinhart, a psychoanalyst and medical anthropologist at Harvard University who has no connection to the case.

"It's called well-informed distress, detachment from reality," Reinhart said. "But the reality that this man has lived in has been essentially a nightmare. He has been detained for an extensive period of time, which research shows has significant mental health consequences."

According to a recent report published by the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit criminal justice public policy think tank based in Massachusetts, the effects of solitary confinement on mental health can be "lethal."

Even though people in solitary confinement comprise only 6% to 8% of the total prison population, they account for approximately half of those who die by suicide. And even if someone doesn't enter with a mental health condition, it's possible for them to develop a specific psychiatric syndrome due to the effects of isolation, according to the report.

Reinhart emphasized that not providing adequate care post prison or detention creates cyclical patterns of trauma, poverty, re-incarceration, mental health challenges, addiction and homelessness.

"Perhaps he has a psychiatric disorder, but the problem here is a system problem. You don't just drop them off and then expect them to behave," he said. "This highlights a broad set of problems of our society's reentry systems that apply to more than 30,000 people who are released every single day from jails, prisons and detention centers."

He added: "We have built systems of punishment but not systems of care, specifically, structures to support them in reentering their community."

ICE would not comment on the specifics of Delvalle's situation, citing ongoing litigation. But according to ICE policy, "detainees, who have received medical care, released from custody or removed shall receive... any medically necessary medication and referrals to community-based providers as medically appropriate."

The policies also say that each released detainee should be given a list of available shelters and "one set of non-institutionalized, weather-appropriate clothing," neither of which were provided, Delvalle said.

Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, said there are currently roughly 3,250 homeless people countywide, about 10% of which are believed to be undocumented. Since the beginning of the pandemic, advocacy organizations have used nearby hotels to serve as an extension to shelters due to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines.

Book says undocumented people who navigate the system face extra unique challenges that American citizens wouldn't necessarily have to confront.

"They are not eligible for federally subsidized programs. They cannot increase income and employment in most cases," he said. "They are the least fortunate of our community."

Hopes of a family reunited

As for Delvalle, there's only one thing on his mind: his daughter, who he hasn't seen since she was 2.

"Not only do I feel like an alien who just landed on earth and has to adjust, who has to fit in somehow, but I feel like an alien who somehow needs to make it up to his princess," Delvalle said, pausing to wipe his eyes on his sleeve.

"Time was stolen and now it could be shortened because of COVID, so I need to make it up to my baby, and her baby, while I still can— without being a burden."

Now living in Chicago with a toddler of her own, Barbara Delvalle— who initially had no idea her father was even alive until a Herald reporter called her for its previous report— said she rejoices in her father's release and is hoping to get to know him, whether that be in Miami or Chicago. She's currently brainstorming with immigration advocates about finding a way to place him in some form of transitional housing.

"The whole situation is very frustrating, I never realized how broken the system was," said his daughter, now 30, during an interview via speakerphone. Her toddler, Aiva, chimed in with a cheerful interruption: "Hi!"

Laughter echoed through the room. Barbara picked her up in her arms and continued: "We just want him to be OK. To be a part of our lives. Right baby girl?"

Responded 4-year-old Aiva: "Yes!"

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