On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 10, dozens of medical professionals wearing white lab coats and scrubs laid down on the lobby floor of the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown New Orleans and pretended to die.
They were there to protest the impending deportation of Cuban asylum-seeker Yoel Alonso Leal.
The Hyatt, located at 1250 Poydras Street, is part of a larger complex that also houses the New Orleans Field Office of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. It's the ICE hub with jurisdiction throughout Louisiana and much of Mississippi, two states where the agency is rapidly expanding its capacity.
Leal had been detained for nearly a year even though he was eligible for release, suffered extreme medical neglect, and was facing a life-threatening deportation in apparent retaliation for speaking out against ICE's mistreatment of asylum-seekers. His case exemplifies the horrors that immigrants and asylum-seekers are experiencing as ICE metastasizes in this region.
Leal had fled Cuba because he was targeted for his political dissent. According to Martha Alguera, an organizer who has been in close touch with Leal's wife throughout recent protests, Leal was motivated to leave because of the harassment he received for his anti-government views and because his wife resides in Florida with Leal's stepchildren.
Leal was originally detained after entering the U.S. through a legal point-of-entry in October of 2018, and since has been shepherded between multiple detention centers in rural Louisiana and Mississippi. He was continually denied humanitarian parole from ICE, even though he was eligible. And, throughout his detention, his health sharply deteriorated. He was unable to treat his pre-existing gout, and he was not given urgent medical care to treat his recently diagnosed lung cancer.
"It is not only immoral, unethical and unjust, but it goes against the oath that we all take as physicians to care for the sick and to not do any harm," said Catherine Jones, Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine, in a video. She helped organize the die-in, which was spearheaded by el Congreso de Jornaleros (The Congress of Day Laborers.)
Leal did not accept these injustices, and advocates say that his deportation may be punishment for fighting back. The announcement of Leal's imminent deportation came the day after a major decision in a class action lawsuit in which he was a plaintiff.
The case alleges that the Department of Homeland Security and New Orleans ICE Field Office have been illegally denying parole to asylum seekers. Where they had approved parole for 75.5 percent of cases in 2016, that number had dropped to 1.5 percent in 2018. This year it was zero, until a judge's ruling forced the government's hand.
The term "parole" in this case does not connote that an asylum seeker has committed a crime; instead, it is used by ICE and DHS to mean the "temporary authorize[d] release" of an individual into the United States. Immigration advocates prefer to use the phrase "deferred action."
Attorneys for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which partnered with the ACLU of Louisiana on the case, found that ICE officers told their clients that parole was not happening at the office anymore. It appeared to be a flagrant violation of ICE's own 2009 Parole Directive policy, which requires the agency to discharge asylum-seekers who meet the legal requirements for asylum.
"It goes against the oath that we all take as physicians to care for the sick and to not do any harm."
On Thursday, September 5, a U.S. District Court judge agreed. The court ordered that DHS and ICE restore parole access to asylum seekers.
ICE began deportation proceedings for Leal the next day, according to Luz Lopez, SPLC senior supervising attorney. Lopez, Jones, and other advocates suspect that this move could have been a retaliation for Leal's involvement in the lawsuit.
Following the court order, ICE "would have to be accountable for [Leal's] deferred action," Jones said in an interview, "and potentially risk exposure of this medical neglect that had been really, really intensely documented."
Leal's supporters, led by el Congreso de Jornaleros, rallied to stop the deportation. They spent weeks organizing and holding meetings with elected officials. They held a protest outside of ICE's office demanding Leal's release from detention and an end to his deportation proceedings, arguing that he could die if put on a flight back to Cuba because of the untreated mass in his lung.
Protesters attempted to deliver a letter detailing ICE's medical neglect toward Leal to ICE Field Director William Joyce and Assistant Director Brian Acuna. When they were denied entry to the ICE office, the group blocked heavy afternoon traffic. Ten were then arrested by New Orleans police.
Despite the protests, multiple Congressional inquiries, calls from house members like Rashida Tlaib, several personal visits from DHS House Committee staffers to the facility where Leal was detained, and extensive documentation of Leal's medical condition in a parole request by his lawyer in July, Leal was deported to Cuba in the early morning on September 12.
Alguera reported that Leal survived the flight, though it was grueling; he felt like he was going to die because of his limited lung capacity. She said Leal is seeking medical care in Cuba.
Leal's deportation comes as ICE quietly grows its operation in the Deep South. Louisiana now houses the largest number of immigrant detainees second only to Texas. Where criminal justice reform advocates have successfully lowered the number of incarcerated people filling Louisiana's many rural, for-profit prisons in recent years, ICE now contracts out the very same spaces. NPR reported that these contracts hold a financial incentive: while Louisiana pays local sheriffs $24.39 a day to house an individual convicted of a crime, ICE pays an average of $126.52 to house an immigrant detainee.
The court ordered that DHS and ICE restore parole access to asylum seekers. ICE began deportation proceedings for Leal the next day.
To boot, this summer the Trump administration announced plans to transfer at least $155 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster relief fund to ICE enforcement, a decision that particularly stings in a region continually facing extreme weather brought on by climate change.
The disappointment of Leal's deportation compels advocates to continue the fight on the ground.
Jones said there is momentum in the medical community to continue challenging ICE for refusing to deliver a basic standard of care to those in its custody. Alguera is working with Voces Unidas: Louisiana Immigrants Rights Coalition to mobilize volunteers to provide transportation and temporary housing for people recently released from detention centers. And the SPLC is working to assure that those now eligible for parole have the legal resources, and the right paperwork, to do so.
Lopez, who knew Leal personally, said he would often express shock at his treatment in ICE custody. "He fled a regime where he was held incarcerated," Lopez said, "and he would say, 'It's worse for me here.'"