TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Time was running out for Rudy Blanco.

His house was on the market. His wife Shelly had given power of attorney to their children. The Cuban government had arranged for him to live in the communist country with a half-sister he’d never known.

After spending nearly three months in the Wakulla County jail, he was locked up again, this time at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Krome facility in Miami. His deportation was only days away, maybe hours.

“There’s nothing else past this but a flight to Cuba — and they’re going to put me there,” he thought to himself.

Shelly would leave North Florida, too, to be with him. They’d start over again and make the best of it. But their future was bleak.

“I wasn’t ready to be resident of Cuba,” she said. “But I would be. We were together.”

He could only pray his Tallahassee lawyers would be successful in last-ditch efforts to keep him in America. But his previous lawyers had failed him.

Blanco, 44, escaped Cuba as a little boy during the Mariel boat lift in 1980. He later married Shelly, started a family and built a small business and happy life together in her hometown of Perry.

But all of that was slipping away over a 1997 drug arrest in the Keys. And while Blanco walked away with probation only, the case prompted a federal immigration judge to order him deported in 2005 just as he was seeking citizenship.

He was allowed to remain in the U.S. in part because of frosty relations with Cuba. But that changed after President Donald Trump followed through on his vow to impose strict new immigration policies. On May 9, after a routine visit to ICE’s office in Tallahassee, he was sent to the Wakulla jail, where he languished for 83 days.

Early last month, he was told he’d be leaving the detention center. But the guards wouldn’t say where. Blanco was convinced he was heading back to Cuba.

“What am I going to do when I land in Cuba?” he asked himself. “What’s going to happen? I don’t know anybody there. I know I would have made it. But I just couldn’t bear to take my family there.”

On Aug. 2, he was loaded into a transport van and taken to the ICE office in Tallahassee — not the airport, where he’d thought he was going. He was told his case had been reviewed. ICE felt comfortable putting him on an ankle monitor and releasing him.

“As soon as I walked out of that ICE office, it was heaven on earth,” he said. “Besides seeing my kids being born and marrying my wife, that was the happiest day of my life.”

His wife and son Noah came to pick him up. He Facetimed in the parking lot with his daughter Hannah, who was flying in from Seattle.

“None of us could talk,” said Hannah, who serves in the U.S. Coast Guard. “I was just crying the whole time.”

He spent the day catching up with family and friends in Perry before driving to Tampa to get Hannah. After getting home in the middle of the night, he stayed up reading articles and Facebook posts before falling asleep in his own bed, his wife beside him for the first time in nearly three months.

The Blancos took off to the Keys for a soul-cleansing few days of boating, snorkeling and splashing around in the ocean. Once back in Perry, life returned to normal.

For a while, anyway.

On Aug. 22, as Blanco and his son were heading down a beach road to a job site, his ankle monitor started beeping. “Call the office. Call the office,” a message repeated. An ICE officer told him there was some paperwork or something he needed to sign.

He drove over with Shelly and Noah, figuring his son could drive his wife home if he was taken into custody again. Bracing for another stay in Wakulla, he got even worse news.

“They said, ‘Listen, we apologize you have to go through this. Your name came up. You’re getting deported. I’m not saying you’re leaving right now, but it’s within the next three or four days.’

“We were all like, ‘What just happened?’ They’re actually freaking sending me back? They have my name on that list, and I’m going back to Cuba.”

He winced as he walked into the Crawfordville jail later that day, hit by the stench of dirty laundry and body odor he’d hoped to never smell again. He went to Krome the next day. He knew he’d be shipping out for Cuba soon, never to return home again.

In Tallahassee, his lawyers Gisela Rodriguez and Alex Morris raced to stop his deportation. Rodriguez worked the immigration side of his case, asking ICE to stay his deportation. Morris sought to have his old conviction vacated. But a previous lawyer had already tried that and lost. And a new judge could reject the request without so much as a hearing.

Morris argued Blanco’s previous lawyers gave him bad advice and made a number of obvious errors, including failing to inform him that his plea to the drug charge could lead to his ultimate deportation.

“It cannot possibly be true that our society would find it ‘decent’ to deport or remove someone from our country based on the deficient performance of (counsel) when they did not come to this country of their own accord, they know no person in the country they are being returned to, their entire family and livelihood is present in this country and they are subject to persecution, imprisonment, torture and death in a foreign country they are being returned to,” Morris wrote in a court filing.

After a hearing Monday in Monroe Circuit Court, Chief Judge Mark Jones opted to vacate the conviction. That same day, ICE agreed to a 30-day stay. Still, Shelly, who’d driven down to the Keys with Hannah for the hearing, was nervous. The judge hadn’t signed the order yet, and the unexpected had happened before.

“There were so many ‘ifs’ in there,” she said.

Finally, on Tuesday, Jones signed the order. But Blanco hadn’t gotten the news yet. That afternoon, a guard called out to him.

“They said, ‘Blanco, pack it up — you’re leaving,’ he said. “But where am I leaving to? The judge hasn’t signed the vacation yet. Where am I going? They had just taken blood. And they say once they take your blood, you’re flying out.”

Shelly and Hannah headed for Miami. Later that night, Blanco walked out of Krome a free man.

“I ran into his arms,” Shelly said.

After stopping for Cuban food at La Carreta in Miami, they headed home.

“I said, ‘You know what: I’m ready for my house. I’m ready for my bed. Let’s go,’ ” Blanco said. “So we rode out that whole night.”

Blanco’s immigration case isn’t closed yet, though his attorneys hope it soon will be. Last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told Rodriguez it would not oppose her motion to have his case reopened in lower immigration court. From there, she’ll ask for the case to be closed on constitutional grounds.

“I’m realistically hopeful because his conviction is gone,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll be able to get back to the status he had before and from there on, just become a U.S. citizen.”

Blanco supported Trump before the election, though he’s unsure who he might vote for if he’s a citizen by 2020. He and his wife know one thing, though: they’re going to spend their time helping others like him.

“If they can slow down the system and take their time and see every case the way they’re supposed to be seen — that right there is a goal itself,” Blanco said. “Because right now, there are so many going before them … there’s no possible way they’ve got time to review all those cases.”

Shelly said she’s ready to push for change however she can, even if it means going directly to Congress.

“We listened, we learned, we experienced,” Shelly said. “And now we can go forth and help. Because that’s the purpose of this. Our kids are raised. We’ll always be mom and dad but our attention doesn’t need to be with them anymore.

“We can have other children. And they can be old men in Krome detention center to little children coming over the border. We can help them all. Or try to.”


Information from: Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, http://www.tdo.com