Cubans seeking asylum currently comprise a significant percentage of the migrant population in Nogales. This is a trend that has occurred along the border for much of 2019. Part of the reason for this increase is a change in the ways that Cubans are processed and evaluated, and the favored status they once enjoyed has diminished. Read more about these changes in policy and demographics here.
An increasing number of Cubans have arrived to Nogales to present at the port of entry in recent months. Since the start of 2019, 81 people from Cuba have come through the comedor, making it the fifth-most populous nationality at KBI this year (after Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and Venezuela). However, this number is an artificially low representation of the actual number of Cubans in Nogales as there are a sizable number who do not seek the services of the comedor. As of September 20, there were 455 Cubans on the metering list in Nogales, which comprised nearly half of the total number of people on the list. Throughout most of this year, in cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, Cubans comprised a particularly significant percentage of asylum-seekers affected by metering and, later, the implementation of the “Remain in Mexico” policy. As of May, Cubans were the third most common nationality making credible fear claims along the border, after Hondurans and Guatemalans.
For decades, Cubans experienced a smoother immigration process to the U.S. than did migrants of other nationalities. Begun in 1966 under the Cuban Adjustment Act and revised in 1994, the more recent iteration of the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy stated that any Cuban who was apprehended in the waters between the two countries (“wet foot”) would either be sent back to Cuba or returned to a third country. Those who made it to U.S. soil (“dry foot”) were able to remain in the U.S. and seek legal permanent resident status after one year and a day in the U.S. Under this agreement, the U.S. also agreed to admit at least 20,000 Cuban immigrants annually, not including the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. These were tools in a Cold War political climate to diminish the power of Communism, a political system the U.S. strongly opposed.
During his second term, President Obama began to normalize relations with Cuba, a process facilitated by Pope Francis. Under this agreement, the US lifted some travel restrictions between the two countries, placed fewer limits on remittances, and reopened embassies. One of Obama’s final acts as president was the cancellation of the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy in January 2017, which essentially means that Cuban immigrants and asylum-seekers are processed at the border in the same way as a migrant from any other country is.
During the Trump presidency, progress with regard to diplomatic relations with Cuba has been rolled back. In 2017, the U.S. embassy in Cuba was closed and moved to Guyana. Any Cuban who wishes to visit or emigrate legally to the U.S. must now travel thousands of miles in order to apply for a visa. In April of 2019, the Trump administration reinstated a limit on remittances sent to Cuba, with a cap of $1,000 per quarter, and also allowed U.S. citizens to file lawsuits over property seized in the 1959 revolution. In June, restrictions were placed on travel to Cuba—including cruise ship tourism (invalidating 800,000 existing reservations) and a category called “people to people,” which is largely hosted through educational and cultural groups. In addition to these changes, 2018 marked the first year since the passage of the Cuban Adjustment Act in which the agreement to admit 20,000 Cuban immigrants was not reached. That year, the U.S. admitted just 4,060 Cubans through the legal application process. These have all dealt a blow to the tourism and foreign investment sectors in Cuba, a notable source of revenue for the island.
Venezuela plays a significant role in both the maintenance of Cuba’s economy and as a context for understanding Trump’s motivation for the imposition of harsh measures toward Cuba. Due to the U.S.’s opposition to Venezuelan President Nicólas Maduro and Cuba’s close relationship with the country, the hardening of policy with Cuba is seen as retaliation for its alliance with Venezuela. As Venezuela’s economy is in the midst of a crisis, there are correspondingly negative economic repercussions in Cuba. Particularly since the return of food rations in May, many see parallels to the beginning of the “Special Period,” a time of economic turmoil after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Additionally, Cuba receives oil in exchange for the services provided by Cuban medical personnel in underserved areas of Venezuela. There are growing numbers of Cuban doctors and nurses who refuse to go on medical missions to Venezuela given current conditions there; Magdalena, whose story is featured in this newsletter, is one of them. Read it here: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/magdalenas-story/
THE JOURNEY TO THE U.S.
Until 2018, most Cubans began their journey to the U.S. from South America, particularly Guyana, given that it was one of the few countries in the world in which Cubans do not need a visa. This meant that they had to traverse the Darien Gap to get from South America to Central America, a notoriously difficult and dangerous passage. (Many people, particularly from countries in Asia and Africa, still have to make this trip.) The Darien Gap is a dense and isolated jungle passage between Colombia and Panama—there are no roads, no cell phone signal, and it is a 5-8 day walk through physically treacherous territory. Flash floods, exhaustion, getting lost, and the presence of the paramilitary and a Colombian cartel are particular dangers. And the Panamanian border is heavily militarized by the country’s border control agency, SENAFONT, who is trained in the U.S. to perform military-style operations.
In 2018, Panama began offering Cubans tourist cards for $20, thus making the trip shorter and significantly less dangerous. In March of this year, Nicaragua followed suit, and now offers transit cards for $50 to Cubans. From these countries, Cubans typically make their way through Central America and Mexico to the border. However, Mexican enforcement has made the journey more challenging for Cubans. In the first six months of 2019, 5,512 Cubans were detained in Mexico, and 710 were deported. In all of 2018, 504 Cubans were apprehended in Mexico and 156 deported.
Previously, Laredo was the most common point of entry along the border for Cubans, but as the region has become notoriously dangerous, travel has shifted to what are seen as safer areas. Cuban migrants are often well-connected to one another via social media and WhatsApp, and so trends change quickly as word and information pass.
AT THE BORDER
In the first six months of the 2018-2019 fiscal year, nearly, 8,400 Cubans were processed at U.S. ports of entry, the vast majority for asylum. For much of 2019, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez were favored destinations for Cuban migrants to present for asylum. Between October of 2018 and April of 2019, there were 3,800 asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez, an increase of 870% from the 394 who were seeking to enter during the entire previous fiscal year. Deportation proceedings for Cubans in the U.S. have occurred in greater numbers in the first six months of the past fiscal year, as well: the U.S. government filed 3,700 cases in immigration court to move Cubans toward deportation.. (This number still pales in comparison to Central Americans—it is 21,300 for Guatemalans and 15,600 for Hondurans in the same time period.)
Cubans are at risk for extortion, kidnapping, and other dangers in Mexico. In the state of Tamaulipas—widely considered one of the most dangerous parts of the border region—there was a well-publicized case in which the director of a migrant shelter was kidnapped because he refused to turn over Cubans at his shelter to the mafia. There, as in many border towns, criminal gangs particularly target Cubans because they are believed to have access to family wealth and resources in the U.S. As a result of the dangerous conditions and the long wait times in Mexican border cities, it is speculated that there will be an increase in unauthorized crossings between ports of entry. Some Cuban migrants say they prefer to risk their lives trying to cross the river or the desert than be returned to life-threatening violence in Mexico. Like asylum-seekers of most other nationalities, Cubans are subject to the “Remain in Mexico” policy in certain parts of the border region, where they await their court dates in tenuous circumstances in Mexican border cities. For more on this troubling policy, read our July article, “Remain in Mexico: An Assault on Asylum.”
Though experiences in processing and evaluation at the border are now similar for Cubans as for migrants of other nationalities, they still do have an advantage in the U.S. immigration system. If Cubans are released on parole—a category distinct from bond, and one that is granted by ICE, typically for reasons of humanitarian need or public interest—they are able to apply for a green card in the U.S. after being present in the country for one year and one day. For those who receive parole, this offers a path to legal residence in the U.S. This is certainly a benefit, but it has been applied somewhat chaotically as certain family members are selected for parole while others are not. This then alters their future prospects of residency and remaining together as a family.
In spite of dangerous conditions in parts of Mexico, many Cubans are now deciding to seek asylum there rather than opt to do so in the United States given the increasingly long odds. In the first six months of 2019, 4,604 Cubans sought asylum in Mexico, accounting for 10% of all asylum applications in the country. In contrast, during all of 2018, 218 Cubans asked for asylum in Mexico, or 1% of the total applicants.
Like all migrants and asylum-seekers who leave their homes, Cubans are motivated by a complex web of push factors, including economic struggles; limited options for free expression, particularly for those who oppose the government; the ability to live safely and pursue professional and personal goals; and the implications that global politics have for individual and societal well-being. Likewise, the reasons that they are pulled to the U.S. include the presence of family, many of whom arrived in a time when it was easier for Cubans to gain legal status; and the opportunity for economic and personal advancement.
As the options for Cubans to migrate legally to the U.S. have largely been closed off, people are increasingly placed in dangerous situations at the border, in their migratory journeys, and as a result of the outcome of their legal cases. People from all countries and nationalities should have the option to seek safety, live alongside their families and loved ones, and pursue lives of creativity and freedom. U.S policies—at the border and in our foreign policy decisions—are diminishing these possibilities for Cubans, and for migrants from around the world.