For three years, Orlando Boquete, who was exonerated through DNA testing in 2006, has lived with the constant fear that he could be deported from the country that has become his home. But his fears may soon be put to rest. Last weekend, Boquete’s lawyers filed papers with the Department of Homeland Security to make him a permanent, lawful resident of the United States
After arriving in the U.S. in 1980, Orlando Boquete, a native of Cuba, settled into a new life, living and working in the Florida Keys. But after only two years, his life was shattered when a sexual assault victim identified him as her assailant. In 1983, he was convicted and sentenced to 50 years imprisonment.
Two years later, Boquete escaped from prison, and for the next decade, he maintained a life underground, unable to use his real name or identity for fear of being captured and returned to prison as a result of the wrongful conviction. “I am innocent; I couldn’t stay there,” Boquete says. “I hid in canals and a sugar cane field for three days before I made it to a farm. I traveled around the country and worked for 10 years before the police arrested me again in Miami.”
In order to get legitimate jobs, Boquete assumed the identities of people he had known or who had recently passed away. Unfortunately, some of these people were already wanted by authorities for offenses not actually committed by Boquete. Over the next decade, he was apprehended by police for both crimes committed by the people whose identities he claimed and a few offenses that were attributable to him (including burglary of a clothing store). In 1995, authorities determined that despite his assumed names, Boquete was the same man who had escaped, and he was returned to prison to resume his 50-year sentence for the wrongful conviction.
Then in 2003, the Innocence Project secured DNA testing for Boquete and in three years later, he was exonerated. Prosecutors agreed that DNA testing proved Boquete’s innocence, and they threw out charges relating to the prison escape.
After he was exonerated, Boquete was immediately transferred to the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because of his previous status as a fugitive. In order to be released from ICE custody, he signed an agreement saying that he would return to Cuba if the U.S. ever began deporting Cuban citizens. That legal status – which he agreed to in order to end his 23-year-long legal ordeal – has left him in limbo for the last three years. The Immigration and Naturalization Act provides a waiver for people seeking to adjust their status who have been convicted of certain crimes (including crimes Boquete committed after escaping from prison). Boquete is eligible for a waiver since the crimes occurred more than 15 years ago.
In the years since his exoneration, Boquete has resettled in the Florida Keys. He spends time with his extended family, works construction jobs, and volunteers at a local clinic. He regularly checks in with immigration officials, in accordance with the rules for his current status. “I am loving every second of my life,” he says. “In prison, every day was the same.”
Along with the formal paperwork for a change of status, Boquete submitted letters from several prominent individuals supporting his application, including former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, a former American Bar Association President and other prominent attorneys and citizens. Advocates and attorneys from the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center in Miami prepared the filing. John Pratt of Kurzban, Kurzban, Weinger & Tetzeli—one of the leading immigration law firms in the nation—has represented Boquete on a pro bono basis since 2006.