Defection easy play for Cuban visitors

One-on-one meetings with immigration aides precede Oriole Park stop

May 02, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Strike one.

If you are a Cuban baseball player contemplating defection this weekend, the first pitch you see is the one to hit. It's the golden opportunity: a big fat lob, right down the middle, served up by the United States of America and its Spanish-speaking team of eight Immigration and Naturalization inspectors, dressed in the home white uniforms.

The pitch will come at you before you can size up the B&O Warehouse, take batting practice at Camden Yards, feel the cool of the outfield grass or hear the cheers of an American sellout crowd.

It will come -- perhaps before you're ready for it -- in a room that isn't anything like Oriole Park. The INS' processing area is 17 months old, and cold and modern, with a hard terrazzo floor. "Sterile," the INS calls it, because all the exits are sealed.

You and the rest of the Cuban team pass through there this afternoon, minutes after the Canadian charter company Air Transat delivers you to BWI Airport in a 362-passenger L-1011 jumbo jet. Out of the gate, you turn right and go down the escalators. There, you are greeted by Diana J. Gosnell, the INS port director, 57, a native Marylander with a local accent and a little Spanish. She'll point out the bathrooms and smile.

Bienvenido, hon.

You get in one of eight lines. The only bright colors in the room appear in 20 photographs, blown up on the wall above you, of such scenes as the State House, the Washington Monument, an Ocean City beach, Baltimore rowhouses and Maryland blue crabs. Each line leads to an inspector, sitting in front of a computer. Underneath the desk are three colored buttons, the purposes of which are a government secret.

The line stops 25 feet short of the inspector. It is your turn. As the law requires, you step forward -- alone -- to talk to a federal employee who can change your life.

Don't encourage, discourage

Officially, no one in the 300-member Cuban delegation is expected to defect during the two-day visit to Baltimore to play the Orioles. "We have no information that anything like that would take place," says INS district director Ben Ferro, when asked about the possibility.

Other authorities are similarly neutral. "We are not in the position of encouraging defections," says a senior State Department official. "We're not in the position of discouraging defections."

The Cuban government says it is so confident no one will leave that the delegation will not include much internal security staff.

"You know, it depends on what each player thinks. It's a personal decision for them," says Luis M. Fernandez, first secretary at the Cuban Interests Section, Cuba's quasi-embassy in Washington. "We feel that everyone wants to play for our team.

"It's not our main concern as a country," he adds. "It's something that is in my mind only remotely."

But privately -- the only way that two countries without diplomatic relations can talk -- the prospects for defections are less clear. Cuban officials concede that defections could prove embarrassing. Baltimore police and city officials have been told to expect defections, and INS agents predict that the Cuban delegation will add to the Maryland district's average of 50 asylum claims a year.

The better part of the INS local enforcement staff is assigned to the Cuba visit this weekend. The service has a public, 24-hour hot line for "anyone who may have questions about their rights," Ferro says obliquely.

INS employees have been joking all week that with the Orioles' weak pitching, asylum officers should be stationed near the Cuban bullpen at the ballpark.

The district director himself has firsthand experience with Cuban defectors. Working for the INS in Rome nine years ago, he helped Arturo Sandoval defect during the Cuban trumpeter's tour of Italy with Dizzy Gillespie.

"We're staged here in Baltimore for jumpers," says a top INS official, using service slang for defectors.

"The track record for groups this size has some of them defecting. We're going to make sure our agents are present and available throughout the visit."

But the INS says that no time is as propitious as the moments after arrival. Standard operating procedure for any international flight is that every arriving passenger must speak privately to an inspector. No security goons, or even a wife, may accompany you.

"Sometimes," explains Gosnell, "we have to have sensitive discussions."

Here's the catch: Because of a congressional mandate that the INS must process all passengers on any flight within 45 minutes, these conversation are strictly limited to one minute, roughly the duration of a four-pitch at-bat.

So you will present your passport, visa, and the short form you completed on the plane. The INS inspectors, who train for 4 1/2 months for this job, will not ask you about defection, but they will watch you. If you speak up or show any sign of fear, the INS will put you in protective custody. As a Cuban and citizen of a Communist dictatorship, your asylum request is almost certain to be granted, immigration lawyers say.

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