DENVER — The detention of a Cuban immigrant set to rejoin his family after he was mistakenly released from prison, then put back, has raised questions about whether more people from the island nation will be deported from the United States now that relations between the two countries have thawed.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement took custody of Rene Lima-Marin, 38, Wednesday after a judge ordered him to be released from state prison in an armed robbery case.
The agency said Thursday it is working to deport him to the country he left as a toddler along with thousands of other Cubans in 1980 in what became known as the Mariel boat lift.
It's not clear whether Lima-Marin, who was ordered deported while in prison, will be returned there since Cuba would still need to agree with the U.S. government on him being included on a list of people to be deported.
Under a 1984 agreement, Cuba agreed to take back 2,746 of their citizens who came to the United States as part of the boat lift. About 2,000 Cubans have been sent back since then, and the rest have either died or are too old or sick to be deported.
Cubans convicted after that agreement, such as Lima-Marin, are not automatically accepted by Cuba because of that deal. But when President Barack Obama ended the "wet foot, dry foot" policy in January that granted immigration privileges to Cubans since 1995, an overlooked policy change established that other Cuban refugees who also arrived from Mariel in 1980 may replace the names of the older or dead candidates from the original 1984 list as long as both countries agree on the cases.
"It's all policy, memorandum and agreement," said John Gihon, an immigration lawyer who was attorney adviser for ICE. "I have a ton of Cuban clients who are petrified, and they probably should be. The U.S. government may decide to just add them to the list."
Officials say more than 36,000 Cubans are facing orders of deportation for conviction of crimes or immigration violations. People who cannot be deported have been allowed to remain and live freely in the United States but check in regularly with immigration officials. About 600 are in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to statistics by the agency.
Seventeen Cubans have been deported since October 2016, and 123 have been deported since October 2014, less than three months before Obama announced the beginning of normalization of relations with Cuba.
Obama ended "wet foot, dry foot" in his last days in office, doing away with a Clinton policy that allowed Cubans who reached the U.S. to remain in the country.
President Donald Trump has been critical of Obama's efforts to improve relations with Cuba. He has promised to re-evaluate the agreements with Cuba although proceeding on the path set by Obama could possibly make it easier to eventually deport immigrants from Cuba.
Lima-Marin was convicted in 2000 of multiple robbery, kidnapping and burglary counts after he and another man robbed two video stores at gunpoint. He was mistakenly released on parole in 2008. He then held a steady job installing glass, got married and has a stepson, Justus, 10, and son JoJo, 7, who was born while he was out of prison.
Authorities realized the mistake in 2014 and returned him to prison.
A judge on Tuesday ordered Lima-Marin's release, saying it would be "draconian" to keep him in prison and that he had paid his debt to society. But ICE can request that an inmate suspected of an immigration violation be held after their release from jail or prison under a form referred to as a hold or a detainer.
Two Colorado lawmakers signed a letter asking Gov. John Hickenlooper to pardon Lima-Marin in order to remove the legal basis for ICE to detain him.
Jacque Montgomery, the governor's spokeswoman, said an application for Lima-Marin's clemency is under review.
Lima-Marin's wife, Jasmine, said she remains hopeful the family will be reunited "sooner rather than later."
She said Lima-Marin checked in with immigration officials every few months after he was mistakenly released from prison in 2008 but deportation was not a concern then.
"If all these things hadn't changed under Trump I could think that it's a misunderstanding that would be cleared up. But now we don't know what's about to happen," she said.
Gomez Licon reported from Miami.
P. Solomon Banda, Adriana Gomez Licon And Colleen Slevin, The Associated Press