A Cuban family's exile has ended with shouts of joy as they returned to this country five months after crossing into Canada for what was supposed to be a brief look at Niagara Falls.
"Feliz! Feliz!" Bermaida Fajardo yelled in Spanish as she ran from a car to hug a friend.Even though the family lived in Miami for several years and owned a home and business there, U.S. officials blocked their return from a Christmastime sightseeing trip to Ontario because they lacked proof of citizenship.
"I made a mistake," Mrs. Fajardo's husband, Carlos, said Tuesday after crossing the Peace Bridge into Buffalo. "We should not have left the country. I know that now."
At the time, Fajardo had an application for political asylum pending, but it was nullified when the Fajardos and their two children crossed the border.
Fajardo, his wife and her two children, Yoradlys and Yoandys, had traveled north during the Christmas holidays to see snow. They said they crossed into Canada to get a better view of Niagara Falls.
Much of the family's stay in Canada was spent trying to get a new application prepared.
Their plight attracted the attention of Miami's Hispanic community, and Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., appealed to immigration officials to allow them to return on humanitarian grounds.
But Benedict Ferro, district director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Buffalo, denied the request for humanitarian parole in March, citing the family's record of immigration fraud.
Ferro said Mrs. Fajardo used phony documents to enter the country illegally in 1985 and that an immigration judge ruled last summer that she and her two children by another marriage should be deported.
But after a new application for asylum and subsequent INS investigation, Ferro said he could overlook the history of fraud because Fajardo had a legitimate fear of political persecution if returned to Cuba.
"The system worked the way it is supposed to," Ferro said. "They were denied (parole) on merit, but they were able to meet the test for asylum. Those are two different standards."
Sister Kathleen Rimar, who acted as the Fajardo's attorney, criticized immigration officials.
"They could have been allowed to return much sooner but I think they felt they had to make an example of them," she said.
She said that during the exile in Canada the Fajardos lost their home and business in Miami.
Despite the losses, Fajardo said he felt no animosity toward immigration officials.
"I don't think about that. I'm only interested in the future," Fajardo said. "I feel like I have been born again."
The family plans to spend a few days in Buffalo and then return to the Miami area where friends and relatives will help them reestablish a boat-building business.
Immigration officials said the family would be able to apply for citizenship next year.