'When am I going to get out of here?'

Instead of the fields he used to see each morning in Cuba as he began his farm work, Pedro Rodriquez Fernandez now begins his days looking out from behind bars.

He lives in a eight-man cell on the second level of a five-tier cellbock behind the massive walls of the federal penitentiary here. Except for meals, showers, and recreation, he spends his time locked in his cell, writing leters to his family, reading, and wondering, "When am I going to get out of there?"

The answer -- which may have a broad impact for other unsettled immigrants from the Caribbean -- is expected soon.

Any day now, the US Court of Appeals in Denver is expected to rule on whether indefinite confinement of someone immigration officials do not want in the United States is legal.

he ruling could set a precedent affecting the release of the other approximately 1,700 Cubans being held here, charged with having committed crimes back in their homeland. And its ruling could help resolve one of the nation's most unusual legal dilemmas: what to do with unwanted people from a country that won't take them back.

Pedro Rodriguez Fernandez's plea for himself and most of the other detained cubans is: "Give us liberty or send us back to cuba."

"We know not everynoe can g to the streets." he said in an interview in the prison."But," he added, "there are many who can live in society and shouldn't be here."

To visit him, this reporter had to sign in, obtain a visitor's badge, and pass through a metal detector and two iron gates. As we talked, a guard looked in from the hallway, but not within listening distance. Mr. Rodriguez Fernandez spoke spanish, but distinctly, making sure his words were undterstood.

The US and its people talk of human rights, demanding the release of the hostages in Iran." he said. "But the government has forgotten the human rights of the [imprisoned] Cuban regugees." e called the indefite imprisonment "mental torture."

As he admitted to immigration officials when he arrived in key west, Fla., a year ago among the 125,000 or so others fleeing Cuba, he had twice been imprisoned for stealing suitcases -- to get clothes "for my children." he had one year left in his second term when the authorities gave him a choice of staying or going to the US.

admission of his crimes ended his temporary freedom.Under this country's immigration laws, he was found "excludable."

Since no one knows where esle to send the "excludable" Cubans, they stay in prison here. Some 75 percent of them are charged with property crimes; another 5 percent committed homicide, according to the State Department's Cuban-Haitian task force.

A federal districk judge in Kansas, where Rodriguez Fernandez was held prior to being sent here, ordered him released, ruling that holding a prison without a release date is "arbitrary" and a violation of international human rights.

Rodriguez Fernandez's attorney, Henri Watson of Kansas City, says the continued detention also violates federal immigration law. a person found to be "excludable," as in Rodriguez fernandez's case, must be deported "immediately," says Mr. Watson.

But the Us Immigration and Naturalization service (INS) contends that Cubans charged with having committed crimes back home can be held as long as the US is trying to persuade Cuba to take them back. aNd with out being formllay admitted to the US, they have no constitutional rights, the INS argues.

Attorney Watson says he discovered that two other cubans who shared a prison cell with his client in Cuba have been freed by the INS and are now living in the US.

In fact a few Cubans were released from the prison here to sponsors. Rodgiquez fernandez himsef has a sponsor (a family in Kansas City) and a job in a restaurant awaiting him -- if he is released. But those releases have been halted pending recommendations from a Cabinet-level task force that has been reviewing immigration policies.

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