The family of Cuban immigrant Rene Lima-Marin expected to celebrate his release from prison Wednesday, but instead learned that he had been turned over to immigration officials and is now in a kind of federal immigration purgatory.
On Tuesday, a judge ordered the release of Lima-Marin, who had returned to prison three years ago after he was mistakenly released decades early from a nearly 100-year sentence. Holding him for the remainder would be “draconian” and “deprive him of substantive due process, and would perpetrate a manifest injustice,” said Judge Carlos Samour, Jr. of the 18th Judicial District in Arapahoe County.
Wednesday afternoon, Lima-Marin’s family thought they would see him walk out of the Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City, again the free man who during his six years outside had rebuilt his life, found God, gotten married, fathered two children and found steady work.
Instead, he walked into the long, tangled arms of federal immigration law and is currently in the custody of agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The family is still looking for answers about what comes next.
Here’s what went down at the prison, according to Colorado Department of Corrections spokesman Mark Fairbairn: The prison ran a check for Lima-Marin’s name through a database that flagged something called an ICE detainer. So the prison contacted ICE, the federal agency that enforces immigration laws, and told them Lima-Marin was about to go free.
“We released him directly to them,” Fairbairn told The Colorado Independent, calling the procedure routine.
“Technically the way it would work is we’re not holding them after their release,” he said, adding that they normally notify ICE when they plan to release someone so ICE can be there. “So we’re not technically saying you’re released and then [we] hold them. Basically, ICE comes, we say ‘You’re released,’ [ICE] picks them up.”
As The Colorado Independent has previously reported, sheriffs in all 64 of Colorado’s counties agree not to hold inmates for ICE. But whether and to what extent they communicate with ICE depends on the sheriff.
Wednesday, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said that while he can’t imagine the emotional roller coaster the Lima-Marin family has endured, prison officials were just doing their job.
“The Colorado Department of Corrections did what was required by law and released Mr. Lima-Marin to Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” the governor said. “The family has shown amazing strength and we hope this is a temporary stop on his way to being reunited with his family.”
Denver immigration attorney Hans Meyer says he has been talking with the family and might join the case pro bono.
“Our position is if he’s being held on a detainer past any release time, he’s being held in violation of law,” Meyer said. “I just don’t know what they’re doing. Everybody’s struggling with an information vacuum right now about exactly what ICE and the DOC are up to.”
Throughout Colorado, the DOC has around 1,050 immigrant inmates that have ICE detainers, costing the prison system “approximately $37 million a year,” according to a March report in Westword.
The reason ICE would take Lima-Marin from the Fremont Correctional Facility and drive him to a Denver detention center is likely because he is a legal resident who hasn’t gotten citizenship, and ICE would argue he is deportable based his convictions involving video store robberies in the late 1990s, Meyer said.
Complicating the issue, though, is that Cubans in America are protected under the Cuban Refugee Act, which limits deportations to Cuba regardless of certain criminal convictions. But there have been recent policy changes between the United States and Cuba regarding repatriotization.
“This would be a travesty of justice if Mr. Lima was picked up and detained by ICE the day he’s supposed to be released and reunited with his family after a full and fair litigation and hearing by the Arapahoe district court judge,” Meyer said. “It’s concerning that ICE is going to swoop in at the 11th hour and frustrate the determination by our court system that keeping him in custody or in prison is unjust.”
Celesté Martinez, who leads immigrant rights work for Together Colorado, has been working with the Lima-Marin family since his reincarceration in 2014. She says when he was initially released in 2008, federal immigration authorities told him he had a deportation notice. But since he was from Cuba, he wasn’t a priority, she says, and he was regularly attending ICE check-ins. But, she say, he missed his last one in March 2014 when he was sent back to prison.
“From there, there have been a series of federal policies that have changed including the wet-foot-dry-foot policy,” Martinez says. “There were changes made by the Obama administration at the end of his last term, and with Trump’s current policies there are other things that are a factor here.”
Martinez said Hickenlooper has been in contact with Together Colorado’s local immigration office and has been supportive of the family.
The state case surrounding Lima-Marin has been high-profile for weeks.
Last month, two lawmakers who normally don’t see eye-to-eye— Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton and Republican Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs— sponsored a resolution that sought clemency for him. That resolution passed unanimously.
Wednesday, Salazar said he felt “gut-punched” when he heard the news that ICE agents had intercepted Lima-Marin’s release.
“You have to question the motives of ICE,” Salazar, who is running for state attorney general, told The Independent. Lima-Marin was out of prison for six years, he said, and ICE did not do anything about his legal status until now.
“I’m committed to ensuring that Rene is not sent back to a communist country that is ruled by a cruel and repressive regime,” Williams said in a statement. “I will still do everything I can to help reunite Rene with his family while respecting the rule of law.”
Together Colorado held a vigil Wednesday evening outside the Geo Detention Center at 3130 Oakland St. in Aurora.
Says Martinez: “Rene needs us to continue to fight to keep his family together and stop his deportation.”
Marianne Goodland contributed to this report.
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons.