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Fresh off the bar exam in 1980, this Seattle-area attorney fought for Cuban refugee rights

A U.S. Marine helps a young Cuban child off one of the refugee boats that were pouring into Key West for weeks, May 10, 1980.
Fernando Yovera
The Associated Press
A U.S. Marine helps a young Cuban child off one of the refugee boats that were pouring into Key West for weeks, May 10, 1980.

Author’s note: One of the delights of producing the six-part podcast Forgotten Prison was digging through abandoned boxes of photos, letters and other archives to uncover the unknown stories of McNeil Island prison, sometimes referred to as Washington’s Alcatraz. One of the more surprising things we discovered was that, back in 1980, McNeil Island played a role in the story of Cuban refugees fleeing to the U.S. in the Mariel boatlift. It was difficult to find out much information other than that hundreds of the refugees had been sent to McNeil. Then, after the podcast aired, I heard from a woman who remembered that time well and had quite a story to tell. (This story originally aired May 4.)  

Back in 1980, Eleanor Hoague had just passed the state and federal bar. Hoague, who lives in Lake Forest Park, was ready to save the world.

But what she took on put her smack in the middle of an immigration crisis playing out on the national stage — up against a system that wasn’t all that interested in helping her succeed.

Hoague helped spearhead an effort to provide legal representation for hundreds of Cuban refugees, who were at the time being detained in the federal prison on McNeil Island in South Puget Sound.

To understand how and why they were there, you need to go back to Jimmy Carter’s presidency. 

“As we meet tonight, it has never been more clear that the state of our union depends on the state of the world,” Carter said in a 1980 speech.

That spring, boat loads of people fleeing Fidel Castro’s Cuba began landing in Florida. President Carter said the U.S. welcomed them with open arms and open hearts. But then Castro responded.  

He called the Cubans who left “scum,” and said he was going to empty out the country’s prisons and mental hospitals and send them along, too.

The president’s handling of the refugee problem drew sharp criticism. In the end, 125,000 Cubans arrived in what became known as the Mariel boatlift. The overwhelming majority were not criminals. But the U.S. detained a small percentage they suspected were. The result: 350 Cubans ended up at McNeil Island prison.

That’s where Hoague comes in. She discovered that Cubans at McNeil were being rushed through their exclusion or deportation hearings. Even though it’s not required in immigration courts, she says it just seemed wrong.

“My thinking was if they’re gonna have their exclusion hearings, then by gum we’re gonna have them represented,” she said. “But at that point immigration was not such a hot topic and there weren’t all that many immigration attorneys.”

Hoague had done some immigration work in law school. And her father was a attorney who had worked with the ACLU going back to the 1950s. She says defending people’s civil rights kind of came kind of came naturally to her.

Listen to the full story above. Eleanor Hoague still has her hand in immigration. She helped found a nonprofit called LIFT, which among other things provides assistance to immigrants and refugees in San Juan County.

Paula Wissel co-produced the Forgotten Prison podcast where you can hear more about McNeil Island.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.