“The excludables” on a secret government list of Cubans to be deported : White Lies : NPR



Previously on WHITE LIES…


ROBERT MCNEIL: Cuban inmates took over part of a federal prison in Talladega, Ala., today.

CYNTHIA CORZO: You know, he just said it was our only option. We had to do something, and this was the only thing we could think of.

TOM BROKAW: Undesirables who came here in the big Cuban boatlift four years ago will be sent back.

JERRY WALSH: Had the whole list been deported, there wouldn’t have been any more reason for my job.

MANUEL GUERRERO: So essentially, we are looking for a needle in a haystack.



Linda Calhoun slept poorly the night before it all happened. Her husband had brought home a puppy he’d found abandoned outside their house, and Linda and her kids had spent all night trying to calm the puppy down, trying to get it to sleep. They took turns feeding it with a doll bottle, but it cried throughout the night, and the next morning, she was a wreck.

LINDA CALHOUN: So didn’t get that much sleep that night. Maybe I should have (laughter) stayed home that day.

BRANTLEY: But Linda went to work anyway at her job as an INS deportation docket clerk at the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution in rural Alabama. And that morning, shortly after she arrived, she and 10 others were taken hostage by a group of men being held in the prison, men who were not serving a sentence for a crime, men who had come from Cuba in a mass exodus a decade before and had found themselves detained for years by the immigration service.

CALHOUN: OK, in immigration, we have regular A files, and we have temporary files. But with the Cubans, we also had blow-back files and they were copies of the original files.

BRANTLEY: We heard from Linda Calhoun at the very beginning of our story. Linda had worked at the prison in Talladega for a few years. She’d gotten to know many of the men who held her captive, and she’d also seen their files, seen why the INS said it was detaining them.

CALHOUN: It used to amaze me, when I had nothing to do, to sit down and open one of those and to look and to read why someone was in prison to start with. You know, some of them got sent to prison in Cuba because they stole shoes for their children, or they stole bread for their family because they weren’t working and the family was hungry – think different things like that. If they committed that here, I don’t think – there’s no way that they were going to be sent to prison.


GRACE: For years now, we’ve tracked down nearly everyone we could who touched some part of the story. We’ve reviewed thousands of pages in the files in the basement of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and in archives from D.C. to California. And we did all this to tell a story about how these men had gone from refugees fleeing communism to immigration detainees, denied due process, warehoused without a charge in federal prisons for years and years on end.

And in the background of this entire story has been a secret list. The men who found themselves detained in Talladega, the men who took over the prison and then took to the roof to unfurl a banner that said pray for us – those men had found themselves there because they were on this list – a list of 2,746 people who’d come over during the Mariel boatlift but who the U.S. had decided it wanted to exclude, to send back to Cuba. The list had determined their fates. That much, we knew. But what we didn’t know, and what no one else knew either, were the names of the people on the list.

The government claimed that people on the list were the worst of the worst, a danger to the American public. But our reporting had shown so many stories of men detained for a mistake, detained for alleged crimes in Cuba, detained for reasons that would never hold up if these men were granted any sort of constitutional protections. For decades now, the government has refused to say who is on the list and who is not, has refused to fully explain how the list had been put together. And not knowing who was on the list has made the final move in our story – finding the men on the roof – virtually impossible.

CALHOUN: I wonder what would happen if I would take a trip to Cuba and if I would see one of them. I would want to find out what happened. You know, just – you got to wonder. Some of them – they weren’t going to make it to the prison there, and nobody heard from them again – and the rest of them that made it to the prison – to what? – to die in one of the prisons for stealing a loaf of bread or a pair of shoes? Too many ifs. Would they take it out on me because immigration treated them like that? Or would they say, Miss Linda? Or would they even recognize, with, you know? That would be, I think, the main thing – you know, to make sure that the fellas that I knew – that they were alive and still well, that they still weren’t locked up in some little prison or maybe in some hole.


BRANTLEY: To finish telling the story, we knew we’d have to somehow get a hold of the secret list – this piece of tangible evidence that has always felt like the key to fully understanding how the United States had treated these men. And not only that, but the list was the clearest, most direct way to identify and find the men on the roof, to hear them tell their own stories. And so today, the list – how it came to be and what happened when we finally got our hands on it.


BRANTLEY: From NPR, this is WHITE LIES. I’m Chip Brantley.

GRACE: And I’m Andrew Beck Grace.

BRANTLEY: This mysterious and secret list of 2,746 names has been a recurring theme in our reporting. It’s something that just about everyone we’ve talked to has mentioned.

ALBA MALES: There was a list, and I’ve always wondered what happened to the ones. But as you know, it’s impossible to find out.

GARY LESHAW: The list has never been made public.

DEBORAH EBEL: Nobody really knew who was on the list and who wasn’t.

CARLA DUDECK: We never saw the list.

DOMINGO AMUCHASTEGUI: I’ve got all my shorthand books with every phone call I took for 13 years up in the attic. But I don’t have a copy of that list.

JANA LIPMAN: The list has been confirmed. We know that it exists, but nobody has ever seen it.

AL WHITSON: That’s like the unicorn. I said, anybody ever seen the list? I don’t think anybody’s ever admitted to seeing the list. If you find the list, let me know. It’s like a science fiction creation.

BRANTLEY: A science fiction creation, a unicorn – while everyone we’ve talked to seemed to know of the existence of the list. No one had ever gotten their hands on it, but not for lack of trying. From the moment the list was announced, people started trying to force the government to release it – reporters, some in the Cuban American community in Miami, family members of the men being detained and, of course, the lawyers who were advocating on their behalf.

In the files in the basement of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, we found a reference to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU. In 1985, the ACLU submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the State Department asking for the list. The Freedom of Information Act, also known as FOIA, gives the public – you, me, anyone – the right to request records and documents from any agency in the executive branch of the U.S. government. So all those departments and bureaus and commissions and institutes – by law, they all have to produce previously unreleased documents if someone requests them. That’s the good news.

GRACE: The bad news is that there are some pretty broad and open-to-interpretation exemptions that an agency can claim if they don’t want to hand over the documents. Exemption one, which is a popular one, is that the disclosure would jeopardize national security. There’s an attorney-client privilege exemption, also popular, a privacy exemption, a trade secrets exemption. Strangely, there’s even an exemption related to geological information about wells. Anyway, when the ACLU filed a FOIA request to the State Department for the list, State denied the request and said that releasing the names of the people on the list would be an invasion of their privacy. In response, the ACLU sued the State Department in federal district court in D.C.

CAROL WOLCHOK: I don’t know that we expect it to get it from Department of State, but it seemed that a federal judge, once you could make a legal argument, would release the documents based on what we knew.

GRACE: The point person on the suit was the director of the ACLU’s Political Asylum Project, an attorney named Carol Wolchok. She’s now an English-language teacher in D.C., where she works with immigrants preparing to take the U.S. citizenship exam. We met up with her one night in a meeting room at her local public library.

WOLCHOK: We were a nonprofit organization that provided free legal assistance to immigrants, particularly those who were seeking political asylum, which presumably these Cuban detainees were seeking, and that we would be available to inform them of their rights and provide legal assistance if we had the list.

BRANTLEY: So it’s a practical matter. Like, in order to do that, you have to have the list.

WOLCHOK: Of course, they would otherwise have to somehow know that we existed and be able to reach out to us, even if people were aware of us.

MALES: When she sued the State Department for the list, Wolchok did something that, at least to our knowledge, no other advocate for the Cuban detainees had done. She called the government’s bluff on Ignatz Mezei, on the entry fiction. She said, all right, State Department, if the U.S. government says these men are excludable, if, like Ignatz Mezei, legally speaking, they are floating off the coast with no constitutional rights, no due process, then that means they don’t have privacy rights in the U.S. So you can’t withhold the list because of the privacy exemption.

WOLCHOK: Many of the reasons the government could withhold documents about individuals who would be citizens or legal residents or legally admitted to the U.S. would not apply to this population. So they didn’t have privacy rights as excludable aliens. And we thought that we should be able to get their names on that basis.

GRACE: And the district court judge agreed with her. He ordered the State Department to hand the list over to the ACLU. But then something very strange happened.

WOLCHOK: Well, then the government classified the document and filed an affidavit explaining to the judge why they classified the document and why it shouldn’t be released to us.

BRANTLEY: So the judge ruled in your favor?


BRANTLEY: But then the State Department, in response to it, classifies the document.

WOLCHOK: And files a secret affidavit with the judge to tell them why…

BRANTLEY: With the same judge?

WOLCHOK: With the same judge, telling the judge why the document now is classified and should not be released to us.


GRACE: So just to recap, the judge rules in favor of the ACLU, tells the State Department, you got to hand over the list. But in response, the State Department classifies the list, claiming that it would somehow jeopardize national security to release it. And to explain this decision, it submits an affidavit to the court. But the affidavit itself is classified. Only the judge can read it. So then the judge reverses himself – his own decision – and says to the ACLU, actually, I’ve changed my mind, but I can’t tell you why.

BRANTLEY: That just – I’m sorry – that that – not to dwell on it – just seems crazy. Like, how does that – is that common? Do I just not know enough about how this works?

WOLCHOK: I imagine that it’s not the only time it’s ever happened, but I’ve never heard of it happening. We actually went back to the judge to ask him to reconsider. But, again, we were in a pretty difficult, you know, position, considering we didn’t see the document…


WOLCHOK: …That the judge was reviewing. We didn’t have access…


WOLCHOK: …To the defendants, to the State Department’s secret affidavit in the court. We don’t expect our court system to operate that way.

BRANTLEY: I can understand, too, how you could make the argument that it’s in bad faith, given that it wasn’t classified as confidential before the lawsuit…


BRANTLEY: …And then it was classified just because…

WOLCHOK: We filed for the FOIA. They classified it because the judge ordered its release. That was the trigger. So that list was and still remains classified.


GRACE: So the list wasn’t just hidden and mysterious. It was classified? After a little bedtime reading on the Espionage Act, we came to understand that our search for the list raised a whole new set of concerns. Was it illegal for us to possess this list? Was it illegal for us to even ask sources for it? Why would the State Department have gone through such lengths to protect the names of 2,746 people the U.S. government had determined were excludable – people who were not citizens, people who had no privacy rights?

To try and find out, we filed our own FOIA request to the Department of State for records related to the list – communiques, diplomatic notes, correspondence between the State Department and the INS about who to put on the list, internal memos about the negotiations with the Cubans – basically, whatever they could turn up – and, of course, the list itself, classified or not. We had very little expectation that our requests would yield anything, that they would even respond to us. State is a FOIA black hole, someone told us. So the request was just the first step. When State dragged its feet, we were prepared to do what the ACLU had done in the 1980s. We intended to sue the Department of State for those records.

BRANTLEY: Most of the records we requested from State involved one man in particular, a man named Michael Kozak. Kozak had been the lead negotiator on the American side when the list was hammered out between the U.S. and Cuba in 1984. He’s a longtime diplomat with a storied career. He’s still at the State Department, actually – been there 50 years – a tenure spanning 10 presidents. During the Clinton administration, he served for a few years as chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba and then later as a U.S. ambassador to Belarus. But in the 1980s, he was working on issues in Latin America and became a key point person on the problem of the Mariel detainees.

Naturally, we’ve wanted to talk with him. But through a State Department spokesperson, Ambassador Kozak declined our request for an interview. Instead, the spokesperson said, quote, “we’d refer you to the public statements made by Ambassador Kozak in the 1980s on this matter.”


ROBERT KASTENMEIER: The committee will come to order.

BRANTLEY: So far as we can find, the only substantive public statement made by Ambassador Kozak about this matter came when he was called to testify in a House subcommittee hearing in 1988. The hearing was about the long saga of the Mariel excludables. And so in many ways, it was a hearing about the list itself. Here’s Ambassador Kozak from his opening statement.


MICHAEL KOZAK: I think we always should go back and remember what happened in 1980. The government of Cuba at that time sent 125,000 people to the United States without reference to U.S. immigration laws or U.S. sovereignty. In effect, these people were dumped on the United States.

BRANTLEY: He starts wide – the boatlift as an incursion on U.S. sovereignty – the boatlift filled not only with relatives of Cuban Americans who had chartered the boats in the first place, but filled with Cuban prisoners as well. And then he lays out the predicament the government faced afterward.


KOZAK: What do you do when somebody like Fidel Castro takes people out of his jails and sends them up your way? You can either release them into your society – and we did that, and the results were they committed more crimes – or you can keep them in jail indefinitely. And we were in the process of doing that, too. And that has its downsides. Or you can send them back where they came from, recognizing that that may not be the most attractive society in the world. But, you know, there – none of those are perfect options. And we were basically going on what the immigration law of the United States provides for.

BRANTLEY: The U.S. was placed in a nearly impossible spot, Kozak says, and his job was to figure a way out. In this telling, the negotiations with Cuba which resulted in the list were a resolution to the indefinite detention of these Mariel Cubans. And so the rationale for the list makes sense. But how did the federal government determine who to put on the list?


KOZAK: In this case, the only people that we were interested in sending back were people who’d committed serious crimes or people who were – had severe mental disorders.

GRACE: OK, a pretty clear answer – the people on the list were people who committed serious crimes or people who had severe mental disorders. But elsewhere in the hearing, Kozak says this.


KOZAK: When we had been trying to get names of excludables and data on them and so on, that there had been a reluctance to really go into that too much in the prison system for fear that that would upset the inmate population, that if they saw that we were seeking information on them, the more questions we asked, the more we would cause people to worry about – in the prisons. It would get rumors started.

GRACE: This is where we get tripped up a little. Kozak has said that they were only interested in sending people back who had committed serious crimes or those who had severe mental disorders. But then he says that the government was reluctant to ask too many questions about the background of these men, to investigate the men who would be put on the list because of fears that it would start rumors among the prison population. So what was the criteria to get put on the list? This is what we’ve wanted to ask Ambassador Kozak. These are the records we’ve requested from State. It’s the main question we’ve had about the list since we first heard about its existence and first realized how long people have been trying to get a hold of it, how secret the government has kept it. Given what we discovered about who could wind up in INS detention – Genaro Soroa-Gonzalez, detained for a mistranslation; Alberto Herrera, detained for the theft of goat cheese in Cuba in the ’70s; the men at Fort Chaffee, detained for not being able to get sponsored out of Fort Chaffee – it made you wonder, what kind of due diligence did the U.S. government conduct about these men in custody in 1984?

LESHAW: I’ve been asked over the years, how did you get on the list? Were those the worst people? No.

GRACE: That’s Gary Leshaw again. He’s the one who had given us access to the files in the basement of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. He’d represented hundreds of Cuban men detained by the INS throughout the 1980s. And his read on the list?

LESHAW: You got on the list because on that day, those are the people that the U.S. government could identify who were either in immigration custody or they were serving sentences somewhere or that the government knew about that they wanted to send back.

GRACE: We knew there were hundreds of people who had been detained since arrival, suspected of serious criminal activity in Cuba. But there were 2,700 people on the list, which meant that the majority of those on the list had somehow run afoul of the law here in the U.S. But what could they have done to find themselves on the list?

LESHAW: If they committed a serious crime, they were probably serving a sentence. But if they served whatever sentence they had been sentenced to and finished, immigration would pick them up and move them to Atlanta.

BRANTLEY: Remember the precarious situation that faced all of the Mariel Cubans, the legal fiction that they weren’t here at all, that they were floating off the coast of Key West asking for admission into the country. And this status was still at play for thousands of Mariel Cubans. They had only been paroled into the U.S. And so if one of them was convicted of a crime, that parole would be revoked, and they would be deemed inadmissible into the U.S. Functionally, what this meant is that if a Mariel Cuban served time in a state prison or local jail, sometimes for even minor offenses, the INS would show up to take them into custody after their sentence was complete. And it’s not like eventually the INS took them into custody after their sentence was complete. In many cases, the person never even left the jail.

One person who served 16 months in a prison in New York state would later tell us how this worked. He had served his sentence, released early for good behavior. He was being processed out at the sally port of the prison, collecting his personal effects. He could see his family there on the outside, waiting to take him home. And as he walked toward the door to the outside, INS agents stepped in and took custody of him right there in the vestibule of the prison. That night, a government plane took him to the federal pen in Atlanta. And this person who had served his 16-month sentence – he would end up spending years more in prison, detained by the INS. And in some cases, the INS detained people who had not served any time in a jail. It detained people it only suspected of having committed a crime or people they believed would soon be charged with a crime.

LESHAW: You might have had some people who didn’t commit a crime, were not charged with committing a crime, but they caused some other problem. You might have people who were picked up for minor things. The guy got drunk, threw a rock or something. They didn’t press charges, but immigration found out. They took him to Atlanta.

GRACE: The Reagan administration, in an internal memo from this time, seems to acknowledge the reality that some of the men being held in Atlanta were never charged with a crime. Writing about the implications a Supreme Court case might have on the indefinite detention and now-planned deportation of these Mariel Cubans, a government attorney wrote in a memo what for my money stands as a monumental achievement in legalese. Quote, “Their guilt in the offense which resulted in their incarceration has never been adjudicated,” end quote.


GRACE: Their guilt has never been adjudicated. This Reagan administration lawyer is hedging with his loopy sentence structure, but a declassified document released by the State Department years ago says the same thing but in a much more direct way. It states that while the Justice Department and the INS maintained that all persons on the list had serious criminal backgrounds, quote, “the dossiers supplied by the INS frequently do not show commissions of such crimes,” end quote.


GRACE: One case we read about in the files in the basement of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society involved a man named Pedro Prior-Rodriguez. He had no criminal record. He was sponsored out to a halfway house in Rochester, N.Y. And one night in November of 1983, as he was walking home, he was mugged by three men, an attack so brutal he would wind up losing an eye. Claiming he needed specialized medical care, the INS revoked his immigration parole and sent him to Atlanta. He was told by the INS that he would be released later that year, but he was not. He was told again he’d be released in 1986, with the INS saying, quote, “we have made a positive recommendation,” end quote. But in March of 1987, he was still in immigration detention. My only crime, he told a reporter, was losing my eye.


GRACE: Which brings us back to the list. Was this man who lost his eye – Pedro Prior-Rodriguez – was he on the list? How did this list come together in the first place?

STEPHANIE VAN REIGERSBERG: During the Marielito negotiations, we spent days and days, if not weeks, going over this – these lists of names.

BRANTLEY: Stephanie Van Reigersberg was the interpreter for the American delegation during the list negotiations.

VAN REIGERSBERG: You know, it was completely chaotic, let’s say. And then every once in a while, we would come back, and we’d sit down and pretend to be organized. But it was basically a mess. It was the most exacting thing I’ve ever done. I mean, these pages were just enough to make you blind. They were just, you know, maybe 50 names on a page, and you’d have to use a ruler, or you’d get mixed up because a line would run into another line.

And what was so difficult about it, because the names, as far as I know, were drawn up by us. And at least to judge from the guy from the INS who was completely ignorant of the system of naming in Latin American countries – he didn’t even know that everybody in Latin America has two last names. So he thought that Juan Gonzalez and Juan Perez were different people. If it was Juan Gonzalez-Perez, he thought it was a mistake. So untangling that was one of the more idiotic things we had to do. It was a huge waste of time. So the list that was presented to the Cuban side had not been filtered at all…

GRACE: Right.

VAN REIGERSBERG: …For mistakes.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: So they were reading the names one after another over a course of about 18 hours. It’s a very long, tedious task.

BRANTLEY: That’s William LeoGrande, co-author of the book “Back Channel To Cuba: The Hidden History Of Negotiations Between Washington And Havana,” which chronicles 50 years of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, including the negotiations about the list.

LEOGRANDE: And at one point, the U.S. delegation reading the name said no me jodas. And the Cubans all began to laugh and the U.S. side didn’t understand it. Well, it turns out that this particular Cuban being interviewed by INS, when he was asked what his name was, he said, no me jodas.

BRANTLEY: No me jodas, Spanish for don’t fuck with me.

LEOGRANDE: The interrogator just dutifully wrote that down, thinking that it was the guy’s name.

GRACE: It just – I mean it sort of boggles the mind because are we talking about a man – a Cuban man – who came over in the Mariel boatlift in 1980 who’s sitting in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1984, and all the U.S. government knows about him is that he has a alias of no me jodas?

LEOGRANDE: Well, this speaks directly to your point as to, how much did INS interviewers really know about these people?


BROKAW: They are unwanted. Twenty-five hundred criminals and mental patients who got into this country from Cuba. They were among more than 100,000 Cubans who came here in the 1980 boatlift. Now a deal to return them to Cuba may be close.

GRACE: The announcement from NBC’s Tom Brokaw was the first news of the repatriation agreement made on December 14, 1984. And just a couple of months later, the deportations of Mariel Cubans began. The first 23 men to be deported were transferred from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary to an Air Force base just north of the city.


DALE SCHWARTZ: I fully well expect to hear six months or three months or a year from now that some of these people have fallen onto some disastrous times when they’ve returned to Cuba. God knows what’s going to happen to these fellows when they go back.

GRACE: That’s the voice of Dale Schwartz at a press conference on the tarmac of the Air Force base on the day of the first deportation flights. Schwartz was one of the immigration attorneys recruited by the Atlanta Legal Aid Society to help represent the Mariel detainees.


SCHWARTZ: These people have yet to go before any judge anywhere and tell their story.

GRACE: In the files in the basement of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, we found a legal brief filed by Schwartz and other lawyers on behalf of the Cuban detainees. It’s from January 1985, just a few weeks after the list was announced but before repatriation flights began. The government would not hand over the list, so the legal aid lawyers asked the government to respond to some questions about it.

Were there people on the list who had been deemed excludable solely for lacking entry papers? Yes, the government responded. Were there people on the list who had been approved for release from the prison but were still waiting for a sponsorship? Yes, the government responded. Were there people on the list who had already been sponsored out and were no longer being detained? Yes, the government responded.

For those Mariel Cubans on the list who have children in the United States and wives who are citizens or permanent residents, does the government intend to inform them that their father or husband is about to be deported? No, the government responded. That would be, quote, “overly burdensome and would require an individual search of each Cuban’s file,” end quote. But even as questions swirled about the list, who was on it and why, the flights to repatriate these men continued.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Officials would not say what, if anything, the prisoners said as they left. After years of legal struggle, the event seemed almost anticlimactic to observers, as the 727 soared into the air for the two-hour flight to Havana.

GRACE: In the first few months of 1985, a total of 201 Mariel Cubans were repatriated. But all of that ended abruptly in May of ’85, when the Reagan administration launched the pro-democracy network Radio Marti, which broadcast from South Florida and reached deep into Cuba. Castro was furious, and to retaliate, he immediately scuttled the freshly inked immigration accord. For the men detained by the INS, it was a double-edged sword. While they didn’t have to fear immediate repatriation to Cuba, their stay in federal prisons had become indefinite once again.


BRANTLEY: Set out to tell the definitive story of the Mariel detainees and, inevitably, you have to decide how best to deal with the many different uprisings, because there were a lot of uprisings. There was the one in Talladega in 1991 that we told you about at the very start of the story. There were the protests at Fort Chaffee that led to the barbed wire and the National Guard at the camp back in 1980. Then there was the uprising at the Atlanta pen in 1984. You heard about that one last time. The investigator Susan Miller – remember, she put the uprisings into a larger context.

SUSAN MILLER: What they were doing is they were trying to speak about their condition.

BRANTLEY: And, of course, their condition was not good. The United States government insisted that, in the eyes of the law, the Mariel detainees weren’t really here, their presence in the country a legal fiction, a fiction not subject to the protections of the Constitution. Yet there they sat in federal prisons, indefinitely detained year after year. And in November of 1987, their desperation led to another uprising – a big one, the biggest one of all. Mariel Cubans took over the federal penitentiary in Atlanta for 11 days and took 90 hostages.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Thick, black smoke hangs over Atlanta’s federal penitentiary, where some 1,500 Marielitos are being held.

BRANTLEY: And it all started because of the list. After the Radio Marti fiasco scuttled the repatriation agreement in 1985, negotiators from the U.S. and Cuba met throughout 1986 and ’87 trying to get back to terms. And finally, in 1987, just before Thanksgiving, the two countries agreed to reinstate the migration agreement – same terms, same names, same secrets, same list. And once word of the agreement reached the men detained in Atlanta, they decided once more to speak about their condition.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: One, two, three, one, two, three – I got a message to the public opinion of the United States.


GRACE: Because many of the men inside the prison had lived free in the U.S. for years, they’d started lives here. They’d gotten married, had children, held jobs. But because of a conviction or even a suspicion of criminal activity, they’d found themselves locked up in immigration detention. And during the takeover of Atlanta, many of their families were speaking to the press.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: What’s your greatest fear about your husband right now?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That he can be deported, and I have a daughter – 5-year-old – and what am I going to do? What’s going to happen to my daughter without a father? I can’t let that happen.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: What was he in jail for?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Possession of marijuana.

GRACE: Many of the crimes committed by the Mariel Cubans detained by the INS had been nonviolent. Drug charges or property crimes comprised most violations. There were indeed some Mariel Cubans who committed serious and violent crimes here in the U.S. But most of those people were still serving sentences in state prisons for those convictions. They were not being released early for good behavior. They were not being intercepted by the INS in the vestibule of the jail as their families waited outside for them to be released.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: What do you want from this? What are you asking for?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: For them to look at the files, to see that they committed an error. Like anybody else that commits an error, they served the time, and he has been detained a year and a half after he served the 15-month sentence.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: …Eyewitness news team.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Emotions spilling over in Atlanta – there’s finally something to cheer about. Good evening. The prison ordeal is over. All hostages are safe.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Cuban prisoners are being scattered across the country tonight while hostage families enjoy their first night together.

GRACE: The Atlanta riot ended after 11 days. And just like in Talladega, none of the hostages were badly injured, and many of them had felt solidarity with the aims of the Cubans. And it was easy to sympathize with what the Cubans were going through, especially since none of the men or their families knew if they were on the list to be deported. And, of course, this was why Carol Wolchok and the ACLU wanted to see the list in the first place – to find out who was in urgent need of legal aid. But the ACLU’s efforts to obtain the list and thus to advocate on their behalf – it only made the list more hidden.

BRANTLEY: And that’s why we wound up suing the State Department. As we expected, the State Department ignored our initial FOIA request, so we filed suit in federal court. Ten months later, after some predictable and not very interesting legal pingpong between NPR’s lawyers and the assistant U.S. attorney representing the government, we finally received word that the State Department would produce an initial batch of records. Six weeks after that, they made good on that promise. So nearly a year after suing the State Department, we got an email with the first batch of records as an attachment. So we hopped on a phone call to open the email together. We opened the attachment, and it was five pages.

GRACE: This could not be further off the axis of what we asked for.

BRANTLEY: It’s kind of amazing that they waited almost two months to send us this.

The five pages were sloppily redacted records related to something vaguely about Cuba, but nothing at all to do with our story and the records we’d asked for in the lawsuit.

GRACE: What a bunch of bull****. I mean, I’m not surprised. But damn it, that is incredibly unhelpful.

BRANTLEY: I got to say, to send anything and to send this feels like a bigger sort of slap in the face than just to send nothing at all. Anybody at State who saw our request knows that this has nothing to do with our request.

GRACE: That’s the thing that’s frustrating. It’s like, what do you – how do you even respond to that?

BRANTLEY: We responded to that with a strongly worded letter to the assistant U.S. attorney, pointing out that the records State had sent were in no way related to our request and reiterating that we were interested only in the list of 2,746 names and any records related to the creation of that list. Six weeks later, we received another email with an attachment from the State Department. This time, it was only one page. And it was a letter from a lawyer at State to tell us that the agency had processed 100, quote, “potentially responsive records,” end quote, but that none of those records were ready for release.

And then six weeks after that, another email, another attachment. This one actually did contain some relevant documents. We knew they were relevant right away because we’d already found these exact same documents in the State Department’s so-called virtual reading room, an online database of records that have already been made public through some other FOIA request. So the State Department was basically saying, no me jodas, NPR. We were never going to get them to hand over the list.

GRACE: But it turned out we didn’t need the State Department to hand over the list, because one day, a package showed up.

BRANTLEY: When I saw it, it brought to mind an earlier era of mail.

GRACE: Yeah.

BRANTLEY: It brought to mind the word parcel.

GRACE: Yeah. Well, it is interesting to have an anonymous source send you a package that looks like a package that would be a prop in a spy movie.

BRANTLEY: Totally.

GRACE: (Laughter) That’s exactly what this looks like.

Once we learned that the list might be classified, we knew that we couldn’t just go around asking people for it because it could potentially be a federal crime to solicit classified material, which is, well, kind of what we’d been doing for years before we heard that it had been classified. But none of that had worked anyway, at least until the day this package showed up, leaked to us by a source. We weren’t certain the package would really contain the list, but we decided to err on the side of caution and leave our phones and laptops out of the room whenever we talked about this package, even before it was opened. And so there we sat in the office, with only our recorder, staring at a package that we thought might contain the list.

Should we open it?

BRANTLEY: I think we should open up it.

GRACE: Do you mind? Can I do the honors? Do you want to do it?




GRACE: All right. So inside the brown paper is a brown paper box, which I think is this way.

BRANTLEY: The package was wrapped neatly in brown paper. Inside that was a box that contained a heavy stack of papers. On top was the English translation of the speech Castro delivered around the time the list was announced.

GRACE: And here’s the next thing.

BRANTLEY: Approved list of persons found ineligible for legal admission to the United States, as referred to in the communique agreed upon by the United States and Cuba. December 14, 1984.

GRACE: And there are two signatures. One of them looks like Michael Kozak. And the other, I’m assuming, would be Alarcon

BRANTLEY: Yeah, swoopy A right there.

Ricardo Alarcon was the lead negotiator for the Cuban side.

GRACE: So – and it looks to be quite a number of pages, which if you had a list of 2,746 names, it might be a lot of pages.

BRANTLEY: How are you feeling right now?

GRACE: Well, it’s a little strange, a little strange. I’m going to flip the page and see names that people, for generations, I feel like, have been trying to get access to. There it is, name, a number.

BRANTLEY: That’s the alien number. It’s the INS number.

GRACE: The alien number, that’s right. The INS number. And date of birth.

BRANTLEY: This top page…

GRACE: Those are the A’s.

BRANTLEY: …Says – yeah, it’s alphabetical. There are no numbers, so we will have to count. But it says, to Cuba.

GRACE: Two, four, six, eight, 22. It appears that there are 22 names on the first page. And then each subsequent page has – 22, 24, 25 – 25 on each additional page.

BRANTLEY: Yeah. You want me to count the pages? I’m going to go ahead and get a pen and a piece of paper so we can do some multiplication.

GRACE: Remember, we didn’t have our phones in the room. No phones meant no calculators.

BRANTLEY: Twenty-five.

GRACE: OK. So it appears that there are 109 pages.

BRANTLEY: Times 25?

GRACE: Times 25, plus 22.


GRACE: Are you using new math or old math?

BRANTLEY: This is 1980s math.

GRACE: OK, that’s old math.

BRANTLEY: That’s very old math.


BRANTLEY: Two times nine is 18, right? Yeah? Carry the one. That’s one. Two times one is two – 2,725 plus 23.

GRACE: And then 22 – or 23.

BRANTLEY: Two thousand seven hundred and forty-eight.

GRACE: Which probably means that on some of these pages…

BRANTLEY: There’s only – yeah.

GRACE: …Somebody got cut off.

BRANTLEY: Or maybe does the last page have the full 25?

GRACE: No, look at that. Look at how smart you are. The last page has three – two minus.

BRANTLEY: So that’s 2,746.

GRACE: That is 2,748 minus two is two thousand seven – and there is, again, on the very last page and underneath the very last name is Michael Kozak’s signature again. This is the list.

BRANTLEY: We have the list.

GRACE: This is the list.

BRANTLEY: We’re holding the list.

GRACE: Well, what do we do with the list now that we have it?

BRANTLEY: Let’s check some names. Let’s check for, say, Jorge Marquez Medina.

GRACE: That’s what I was going to do. All right. Martinez…

BRANTLEY: Jorge Marquez Medina had been the leader of the uprising in Talladega. He’s the one who had protected Linda Calhoun, the one she had called her guardian angel.

GRACE: Marquez.


GRACE: Jorge Marquez Medina.

BRANTLEY: Here we go. Jose Hernandez-Mesa.

Mesa, who’d asked Alba Males not to send his letter to the mailbox of forgetfulness.

GRACE: Whoa, 1964 – wow.

BRANTLEY: In scanning the list, we saw a surprising number of people who were really young in the 1980s.

Another way of putting that is, would U.S. officials detain a 16-year-old immediately?

GRACE: I don’t know. There’s only one way to find out.

BRANTLEY: I mean, how long could a 16-year-old have been in prison in Cuba?

GRACE: I know. This is crazy. Can you imagine being born in 1964 in Cuba and coming over to the U.S. in 1980 on a shrimp boat and being detained and finding yourself on a list of being repatriated? Who – the guy that Hamm calls goat cheese guy was a young…

BRANTLEY: That man, Alberto Herrera – he was there on the list. And so was Pedro Prior-Rodriguez, whose only crime was getting mugged in Rochester and losing his eye. We wanted to start using the list to research all the other people whose names were on it, but there was still that lingering concern about the list being classified. Could it still be classified? There were no classified markings on the copy we received, and it was clear the Cuban government had a copy of this list, too. So what kind of national security interests could be endangered by its release? Without revealing to them that the list had been leaked to us, we just decided to ask our contact at the State Department. Is the list classified? Getting the answer took a little while, but finally, the spokesperson responded, quote, “the excludable list is not classified, but it contains personally identifiable information likely protected under the Privacy Act. It is not a public document,” end quote.

GRACE: The spokesperson was right. The list did contain personally identifiable information, and we started using that information to confirm some of the theories we developed about the list. The men who’d been stranded in Fort Chaffee before being transferred to the penitentiary in Atlanta in 1982 – they were on the list. The names of men we’d read about in the basement of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society who’d been arrested in the U.S. for minor drug crimes and bar fights, offenses that no reasonable person would call a serious crime – they were on the list.


GRACE: And perhaps the most telling were five names we’d seen before when we’d found their tombstones in the graveyard behind the Atlanta pen. Five of the men who had died in the prison before the list had ever been announced had somehow found their way onto it. When the U.S. government said it hadn’t asked too many questions about the names they were adding to the list, they weren’t kidding. It seems they neglected to ask even the most basic questions about these men.


GRACE: So now that we finally had the list, we had to take it and go – where else? – to Cuba to finally find the men on the roof.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish) Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Havana, Cuba, where the local time is 11:17 – approximately – a.m.

GRACE: That’s next time on the final episode of WHITE LIES.


BRANTLEY: If you want to hear our final episode right now, sign up for Embedded+ at plus.npr.org/embedded. It’s a great way to support our work. And after our show ends, there’s a new show coming that we think you’ll love. It’s called Taking Cover. And if you’ve already signed up for Embedded+, you’ll get access to episodes of that show early and sponsor-free. So to support NPR’s investigative journalism, go to plus.npr.org/embedded or find the Embedded channel in Apple.

GRACE: WHITE LIES is reported, written and produced by us and Connor Towne O’Neill. Liana Simstrom is our supervising producer. Annie Iezzi is our associate producer. Robert Little edits the show with help from Bruce Auster, Keith Woods, Christopher Turpin and Kamala Kelkar. Our incredible score is composed and performed by Jeff T. Byrd.

BRANTLEY: Emily Bogle is senior visual editor. Barbara Van Woerkom is our fact-checker. Our audio engineer is Maggie Luthar. Huge thanks to Radiohead for the use of their song, “The National Anthem,” courtesy of XL Recordings and Warner Chappell Music.

GRACE: Archival tape in this episode comes from the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, NBC, C-SPAN, Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Archives and the CONUS Archive.

BRANTLEY: Special thanks to Michael Allen, Tom Burke, Patricia Pena, Aysha Lewis, Michele Kelemen, Robert Benincasa, Jeff Guo, Rachel Seller, Lauren Lehner, Eduardo Miceli, Rafael Penalver, Ernesto Perez, Willy Allen, Juliana Lomardo, Larry Orton, Duke Austin, Alfredo Villoch, Carl Kikuchi, Monica Wilson, Matthew Storey, Louise Dettman and Monica Johnson and Heather Ashe at the Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

GRACE: We are grateful for the work of Micah Ratner and NPR’s legal team, especially in this episode, and Tony Cavin, NPR’s standards and practices editor. Our project manager is Margaret Price. Irene Noguchi is the executive producer of NPR’s Storytelling Unit. And Anya Grundmann is NPR’s senior vice president for programming and audience development.


RADIOHEAD: (Singing) Everyone is so near. Everyone has got the fear. It’s holding on. It’s holding on.

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