Last Saturday afternoon found Chatham County overcast and chilly, but that didn't stop Juan Manuel Reyes-Alonso and Amber Harmon from stepping outside their home to conduct their summertime ritual: They sat down next to a small goldfish pond, fired up a couple cigars and proceeded to catch up with each other. The couple, married since 2000, has some serious catching up to do. One week ago, the day before Thanksgiving, Reyes-Alonso walked out of a federal detention center in Louisiana after spending 12 weeks under lock and key. In September, Reyes-Alonso, a Cuban immigrant who has lived and worked in North Carolina for four years, was charged by the government with failing to fill out a registration form detailing his previous work with Cuba's intelligence service (a requirement he says he didn't know about). (See "A Spy in Chatham County?" Independent Weekly, Nov. 3, 2004, www.indyweek.com/durham/2004-11-03/news.html.)
Freedom came at a temporary, but sizable, price. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which was holding Reyes-Alonso pending a January deportation hearing, let him go on $50,000 bail. The bail money, Harmon says, was essentially "my mother's retirement," and it will be returned by the government when Reyes-Alonso appears at his hearing, which will now likely be postponed until sometime in the spring of 2005.
Two months ago, Reyes-Alonso registered with the Justice Department as a former intelligence agent, as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In addition, he says he's always been upfront about his three-and-a-half year stint with Cuba's spy service, discussing it openly with the CIA, State Department, FBI and other agencies. "I was an open book with them, always," he says.
After losing three months of work while in detention, this week Reyes-Alonso plans to return to his job as a translator in the pediatric center at UNC Hospitals. Both he and his wife say they expect the government to rule in his favor at the deportation hearing and allow him to stay in the United States permanently.
In the meantime, the couple is struggling to cover other costs that have arisen from the case. Between the legal fees, travel expenses and costly collect calls from the detention center, Harmon says, they've spent more than $16,000 since September, and additional legal wrangling is certain to drive their expenses up. In an effort to keep the couple on its feet financially, Reyes-Alonso's friends and family have created the "Free Juan Fund" to collect donations. (For more information, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The couple says they'll spend the coming months working, getting reacquainted and spreading the word about their situation. "I'm not planning to raise waves against the government, but I am planning to speak the truth about my experience," Reyes-Alonso says.
Reyes-Alonso will discuss his case at the next meeting of the Orange County Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Dec. 16 at 7 p.m., at the Chapel Hill Public Library. The meeting will also feature a screening of a new hour-long documentary, Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties.