nthposition online magazine

'Scarface' and the forgotten prisoners of Mariel

by Mark Dow

[ politics | opinion - december 03 ]

The 20th anniversary of Scarface, starring Al Pacino as a Mariel Cuban refugee with a caricatured accent who becomes a machine gun-toting drug kingpin with cocaine on his face, has passed with minor fanfare and full-page newspaper advertisements. News coverage and the newly available DVD play up the movie's cult status in hip-hop culture. But Scarface has its place in another American legacy, too: the utter abandonment of thousands of Mariel Cubans in US penitentiaries and jails based, in part, on a myth which Scarface has helped to sustain.

During a six-month period beginning in April 1980, dictator Fidel Castro allowed the departure of some 125,000 Cubans from the island. They left from the port city of Mariel. Scarface opens with text informing us that "an estimated 25,000" of the Mariel Cubans that came here "had criminal records," and that Castro had sent us "the dregs of his jails." Scarface didn't invent this myth, but the movie helped it stick. The INS itself, according to criminologist Mark Hamm, "indicated that only 350 [of the Mariel refugees] were previously locked up in Cuba." Reality did not interfere with what Hamm describes as "the INS's construction of a moral crusade against all Cuban men from the port of Mariel."

Today there are 1,100 Mariel Cubans being detained indefinitely by the US government's Bureau of Immigration Customs and Enforcement (formerly by the Immigration & Naturalization Service). In a scene omitted from Scarface but included on the 20th anniversary DVD, Pacino delivers a rambling monologue noting that Castro won't take the refugees back, that neither country wants them - and that this can work to their advantage. "This [is the] United States. They got nothing but lawyers here... They're stuck with us, man. They got to let us go."

But the US does not have to let them go - ever.

Soon after his arrival on the boatlift, RG was given probation for attempted robbery. He also served two sentences for misdemeanor marijuana possessions. Then the US Immigration Service kept him imprisoned for 19 years.

PA was sentenced to 90 days for misdemeanor cocaine possession. Then the Immigration Service held him for 15 years before releasing him last year.

Such cases are commonplace. LV served five years for attempted murder - and then Immigration detained him for another 15 years.

Contrary to Scarface's cynicism, immigration detainees are not entitled to attorneys, though immigration agency regulations do provide for an annual custody review for the Mariel Cubans. At these interviews, low-level officials decide whether or not to release the prisoner who has completed his or her sentence. After one of LV's annual reviews, immigration officials denied him release on the basis that he showed insufficient remorse for his crime. In a subsequent review, they denied him release on the basis that his expression of remorse was merely a "tactic" to get released.

Again, such shamelessness is the rule, not the exception, and Mariel women are suffering, too. Maria D served 14 months for misdemeanor drug possession, and she completed a drug treatment program in jail. Then the INS took her into indefinite detention. Denied her anti-depressant medication, she became suicidal and tried to swallowed razor blades. Immigration bureaucrats - with the approval of Headquarters - used her suicide attempt to justify her continued imprisonment.

There is no appeal of a Mariel custody review decision.

How can this be? In June 2001, the US Supreme Court ruled in Zadvydas v Davis that when an immigration detainee's removal or deportation cannot be carried out within a "reasonably foreseeable" period, defined by the court as six months in most cases, the Immigration Service cannot continue to hold that person. But, exploiting an esoteric doctrine in immigration law, the US government claims that the 1,100 detained Mariel Cubans are not covered by the Zadvydas decision. (In 1980, the Mariel Cubans were "paroled" into the US by the Attorney General. They are technically considered not to have "entered" this country even though they have been here legally for more than two decades. Their rights to due process are thus severely curtailed.)

Twenty years after Scarface, director Brian De Palma remains indignant that the ratings board objected to the cursing and violence in his movie and tried to label it X instead of R. De Palma recalls that the board was finally swayed by someone who told them simply: "You've got to let the world know what's happening."

It is the same plea made so often by indefinitely detained Mariel Cuban prisoners: just let the world know.