By Omar Jimenez and Bill Kirkos, CNN
As Afghans flee the Taliban regime and flow into the United States, they are landing in places like Fort McCoy, situated in rural Wisconsin.
It’s the current temporary home for up to 13,000 recently-evacuated Afghan refugees, though Army officials would not disclose the actual number on base.
Marcos Andres Hernandez Calderon lives in nearby La Crosse, Wisconsin and knows their situations all too well, and just how difficult it will be for this generation of refugees.
Calderon was one of the thousands who came to the same Fort McCoy, fleeing Fidel Castro’s Cuba as a refugee more than 40 years ago, first coming by boat to southern Florida.
“You can see you how your country disappears in your eyes. You don’t know when you’re gonna go back there, when you’re gonna see your family again,” Calderon told CNN, choking back tears as he pleaded for people to put themselves in the shoes of these refugees, shoes he once wore. “So you feel what they feel. It’s not easy, you know. Being separated from your family, coming to a country where you just don’t know anything. I don’t know the language, I don’t know the people, you don’t know how the people are gonna like or dislike you.”
The conditions of the 1980 Cuban refugee influx, otherwise known as the “Mariel Boatlift,” were different from what the thousands of Afghan refugees are fleeing from now. Named for the Port of Mariel, west of Havana, these “Marielitos” left after Castro announced they could, in numbers that eventually grew to roughly 125,000 people, primarily making the journey by boat.
A number of them had been released from Cuban jails and mental health facilities, making for what at times was a volatile population inside places like Fort McCoy at the time.
“Living in there was uhh… it was something,” Calderon said through a laugh. “It was people from mental hospitals, it was people from prison, it was people from the government, it was people from everywhere and a lot of them didn’t like each other. Sometimes you got fights, sometimes you danced, sometimes you hear music.”
It’s a situation he and other Cubans like him in the rural Wisconsin area see as different from what’s happening now.
“I don’t think they’re going to fear as much as we did because they came asking for asylum due to the war that was going on over there,” said Jose Lores, a 64-year-old former Cuban refugee who arrived in southern Florida by boat in June 1980 before being taken to Fort McCoy. “They know they were being persecuted and they [the Taliban] were going to kill them. They’re going to have to thank God for America because America open the door to receive them.”
“Just because you don’t know them, they are a different race, they’re a different color, it doesn’t matter. We’re all human, and we all deserve a second chance,” said Norberto Gomez Mendez, a 63-year-old former Cuban refugee. “I believe that here in America you open the door to the whole world, America is built from people that immigrate from everywhere in the world.”
Learn the language
Based on their own experiences, these Cubans have simple advice for this new generation of refugee.
“Learn the language. And find help… with people who are willing to do it,” Calderon told CNN. “Because it’s very very very very tough coming from another country where you can’t buy anything or ask people directions or anything because you cannot communicate.”
Outside of language, learning the general rules of a completely foreign environment can be a challenging process.
“They’re going to have to have someone with them that knows what the situation at hand is,” said Gomez Mendez.
“In order to get around and move around and learn, they’re going to have to have constant guidance.”
It’s guidance that includes everything from getting a proper job and education to staying out of trouble with law enforcement.
“Learn the law of the land,” said Lores. “Why? We came from a country where we only knew one law, the communist country law. That’s it. When we came to America, we really didn’t learn the law really until years later, and that’s one of the things that got us in trouble.”
The consequences of getting it wrong, could last a lifetime.
According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services policy manual, crimes like murder or what it defines as an “aggravated felony” permanently bar someone from naturalization.
In 1988, when Marcos Calderon was living in Minnesota, he said someone was selling cocaine at his house. “They got me because the drugs was at my house,” said Calderon. He was eventually sentenced to federal prison, where he served a roughly three-year sentence and was released in 1992.
“Still today I’m punished for this crime, I can’t go back home,” said Calderon, maintaining he has served his time and decrying the current dynamic as unfair. “We are more American citizen than we are Cuban. We have the blood, we have the body, we have lived in this country way longer. And we ask for a second chance, for an opportunity, for somebody to help us, to be able to own things, to travel, to vote. To be treated like an American,” Calderon said through tears, visibly shaken.
A controlled substance violation qualifies for a temporary ban from applying for citizenship. Illicit trafficking in a controlled substance is considered an “aggravated felony,” which would typically result in a permanent ban, however any crime that falls under that category prior to 1990 is exempt, according to the USCIS policy manual. That said, the officer still has discretion to consider the “seriousness of the underlying offense” along with the applicant’s “present moral character.”
Without citizenship, Calderon and others in a similar situation have to pay a yearly fee of $410 to continually renew their authorization to be employed in the United States. It’s a tricky web of government policies these Cubans don’t want the Afghans to ever have to deal with.
Concern and enthusiasm
The Pentagon said Friday there are currently 25,600 Afghan evacuees being housed at eight military installations across the United States, including Fort McCoy.
With refugees flowing in, it has left some in the surrounding Wisconsin area with concerns, from politicians to members of the public.
“If we let some people slip through that create acts of terror that’s going to poison the entire operation and that would be a travesty,” said U.S. Senator Ron Johnson during a tour of Fort McCoy in late August, where he said about a thousand Afghans were being held.
In nearby Sparta, Wisconsin, there is both concern and enthusiasm over what next steps for these refugees could look like.
“One of the things I’m concerned about is just the overall safety of… the citizens in our community, the women and children especially, there’s just a huge cultural difference,” said Erica Culpitt, a 34-year-old Sparta resident.
Michelle Hamilton, who has lived in Sparta for about 30 years, said, “It’s a little scary because we don’t know them but on the same token, they’re people. They’re scared too.”
“I think that we should help them because they’re still human,” she added.
Many have helped, donating clothes, shoes, and anything they can, efforts being spearheaded by Team Rubicon along with a coalition of other nonprofits.
“We are literally flying the airplane as we build it, so every day is a constant iteration on how we receive, how we continue to do this better and in a more efficient manner,” said Art delaCruz, CEO of Team Rubicon, told CNN. “We need to make sure we can provide those basics as they move forward.”
For the Cubans a generation ago, they remember how they were treated and the tensions that came from transplanting into a new country — a new world.
Marcos Calderon said, “Be yourself. Be prepared. Learn the American way. Don’t make mistakes like a lot of immigrants have done. Do good for others. Show the United States of America that what they have done for them… it has been a good thing, and they are grateful to be here and receive this help.”
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CNN’s Michael Conte contributed to this report.