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Chatham man cleared by judge

Immigration court rules that Juan Manuel Reyes-Alonso told Homeland Security about his background, as he had insisted. Now, he just has to find $27,000 to pay his lawyers.

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Juan Manuel Reyes-Alonso said all along this would happen. "I was expecting this, of course," he told the Independent in a July 4 interview. "Because I'm innocent, I don't have anything to fear." What Reyes-Alonso, a 37-year-old Cuban immigrant who has lived in Chatham County for five years, was expecting was for U.S. authorities to allow him to stay in the country he says he has come to love.

Last September, the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested him and began deportation proceedings, claiming in a press release that "this man had extensive training and a long career as a Cuban intelligence officer" and that he'd failed to properly notify the Justice Department of this fact, as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

From a federal detention center in Louisiana, Reyes-Alonso protested that while he had trained and worked for Cuba's Interior Ministry from 1994 to 1997, he'd explained as much--in great detail--to several U.S. government agencies before and since he made his way to the United States in 2000. He didn't notify the Justice Department, he maintained, because he didn't know of the requirement. (See "A spy in Chatham County?" Independent Weekly, Nov. 3, 2004, www.indyweek.com/durham/2004-11-03/news.html.)

Reyes-Alonso filed the proper form from the detention center, and just before Thanksgiving, his lawyer arranged for him to be released on $50,000 bail. Then he went back to work at his decidedly unsecretive job as a translator at UNC Hospitals.

The latest development may close the case for good. At his final deportation hearing, held in Atlanta on June 29, Judge William Cassidy ruled that Reyes-Alonso will not be deported from the United States and that he'll maintain the regular rights under his permanent resident status. Reyes-Alonso has been married to U.S. citizen Amber Harmon since 2000; the two met and fell in love during her first trip to Cuba in 1997.

In the closed hearing, Reyes-Alonso says, Cassidy acknowledged that the Chatham resident has been an open book about his past ties to Cuban intelligence. "Basically, what [the judge] told the Homeland Security department was, 'Seems to me like this guy told you plenty of times before who he was, and you failed to tell him that he had to fill out some forms. So I'm not thinking that it would be fair to deport him.'"

The government was given 30 days to appeal Cassidy's ruling. If they don't, or if an appeal fails, Reyes-Alonso and his family will be returned the bail money. The $27,000 in legal fees and expenses the family has logged, however, will remain their problem.

"I'm really happy to be over with the whole thing, but I'm really pissed, because this shouldn't have happened at all," Reyes-Alonso says. Beyond the uncertainties and financial burdens he and his family have suffered, he says, he's also upset by what a wasted effort it was for the government. "They were hunting for the longest time--spending taxpayer resources, time and effort--hunting for an enemy that didn't exist."

He also thinks the U.S. government missed an opportunity to tap his expertise, which he'd like to offer toward the goal of bringing democracy to Cuba. "I feel that need to do something for [the Cuban people], but I'm tied up, because if I try to move a finger, it's like the U.S. government would be thinking something about me.

"People say that things happen for a good reason; I'm still looking for the good one in this, and I don't know if I will ever find it," Reyes-Alonso says. "I think that everybody lost more than we gained at the end."

Still, after all is said and done with his case, "I don't have any hard feelings against the U.S. government," he insists. "At the end, justice was served by the same government that put me in jail."

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