Lisppi Rodriguez, a little girl on a grown-up mission, stood outside the Justice Department yesterday and told government officials that all she wants for Christmas is her daddy.
"I came to see if they would let my father come back to me," said Lisppi, 9, a Cuban refugee whose father arrived here in the 1980 Mariel boatlift and is now detained at a riot-torn federal detention center in Louisiana. "I would like the U.S. government to let my father go free for Christmas."
Lisppi, who wore a ponytail, traveled overnight from Miami with two busloads of about 80 relatives of Cuban inmates. They came to plead with Justice Department officials for their husbands, brothers or fathers who face being sent back to Cuba because of their criminal records or histories of mental illness.
The group, which arrived in the wake of riots and hostage-taking by some Cuban inmates in Atlanta and Oakdale, La., pressed its case yesterday with both the media and the government.
Five representatives of the families met for nearly 1 1/2 hours with top officials from Justice and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, emerging from that private conference to make an emotional public appeal for the release of hostages.
"If these people want their files to be looked over again, please, we beg you, these men that have hostages, let them go," said Elida Dominguez, an American whose Cuban husband, Barbaro, is imprisoned in Atlanta on a conviction for conspiracy to counterfeit money.
Dominguez, repeating the assurances of federal officials, said the group had been promised that there would be no reprisals if the hostages are released immediately. Without their release, she said, the process of reviewing individual cases and appealing deportation orders "is put on hold."
During the meeting at the Justice Department, anxious relatives milled around the Constitution Avenue entrance to the agency. Some, often speaking through interpreters, talked to reporters about their hopes for being reunited with their loved ones. Others, forming a tight circle, prayed or wept softly.
The only member of her family to speak English, young Rodriguez bore the brunt of communicating her father's predicament. With her mother and aunt occasionally filling in details in Spanish, she described how her family had arrived in the United States by boat in 1980 and how her father, Louis, was subsequently sent to prison "for printing false money."
Louis Rodriguez, according to his daughter, finished his two-year jail sentence two months ago and is now being held at the Louisiana detention center pending expected deportation. He had no criminal record in Cuba, she said.
"I hope they let him stay," said Lisppi, who has spoken with her father on the telephone since the prison rioting began Saturday. "He told me he doesn't want them to take him back to Cuba."
Those who journeyed to Washington yesterday expressed hope that the U.S. government would show compassion for the detained Cubans and make distinctions between hard-core criminals and those convicted of lesser offenses who have already served their sentences. At the core of their message was a plea that family members not be separated.
"I am here for the freedom of my family," said Kerala Sanchez, 25, who came from Cuba by way of Spain and is now a U.S. citizen. But her brother, Rolando, 30, is at a detention center in Laredo, Tex.
"We are afraid he will be deported," Sanchez said. "That would separate him from his Cuban American wife, his 4-year-old daughter who was born here and my mother and me."
Members of the Cuban American National Foundation greeted the buses from Miami and helped out as interpreters, arguing that "a bridge of understanding" and sensitivity to individual situations needed to be made in negotiations.
"Men in prison have children who were born in the U.S.," said Mignon Medrano, special assistant to the group's executive director.
"What are they going to do, send all the men back to Cuba?"
The Miami community, she said, has been divided on the pending deportation of many of the Mariel boatlift refugees and on a U.S.-Cuban agreement calling for their repatriation to Cuba.
The foundation had earlier praised the agreement, especially the provision that would allow Cubans on the island to be reunited with relatives in the United States. But the fate of Mariel detainees is seen as something that should be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Lydia Garcia said she has lived in the United States 29 of her 30 years and does not want to be forced to choose between living here and being with her husband, Jose, a Mariel boatlift refugee she married in 1981. Her husband, she said, served a four-year sentence for assaulting a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and is being detained at a federal facility in Mississippi.
"If he is sent back to Cuba, it will destroy our families," she said.
Staff writer Zita Arocha contributed to this report.