Rodrigo is an asylum-seeker from Cuba currently waiting in Nogales, Sonora. It took him five months to reach the U.S./Mexico border, and his journey included several months in difficult conditions in Mexican detention facilities, walking for days through isolated terrain, and being at constant risk for extortion and kidnapping. He dreams of bringing his family to safety and opportunity in the U.S.
Rodrigo (name changed at his request to protect privacy) is a 51-year-old asylum-seeker from a small city in Cuba. Prior to this year, he had lived his entire life there, where he raised two children and made his living by operating a small corner store selling candy, soda, soap, and snacks. Recently, Rodrigo says, life in Cuba has become increasingly difficult—the economic situation has become dire in large part because of what is happening in Venezuela, and he feels that the new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is more stringent in his political convictions than previous presidents had been. Rodrigo has long been opposed to the political system in Cuba, but is not outspoken about it and so largely avoided problems until mid-2018, when he started receiving threats from the police in his neighborhood.
He made the decision to leave when he realized that he was under surveillance and his financial well-being was slipping. His children are now nearly grown—his daughter is 17 and concluding high school; his son is 24 and trying to support himself as an artist and a painter. Neither wish to remain in Cuba as they don’t see a viable future for themselves there or any way to support themselves economically. As Rodrigo said, “the youth have nothing to look forward to, they have no hopes; the government doesn’t give you a way to advance yourself.” However, Rodrigo was not able to secure the money for all three of them to come to the U.S. He asked family members in the U.S. for assistance in paying for the journey to the border, which cost $20,000 and began five months ago with a flight to Nicaragua. From there, the initial group of 200 Cubans was split into smaller groups to traverse Central America and Mexico without authorization. Of this initial group, Rodrigo says the majority were bound for Juarez to seek asylum, though he estimates that approximately one-third of the group did not reach the border because of deportation while in Mexico.
Rodrigo describes the journey through Central America—he passed through Honduras and Guatemala after flying into Nicaragua—as extremely difficult. He was robbed and assaulted by the police and criminal gangs in both Central American countries, and traversed a physically treacherous mountain range in Guatemala to reach the Mexican border. He said, “I’ve heard that President Trump wants to make these countries ones to seek asylum—I don’t believe for a minute they’re safe places to do that.” After making it to the border of Mexico, he crossed through the Suchiate River on a small raft, but was intercepted by Mexican immigration authorities upon arrival to Mexico and was taken to a detention center near Tapachula. He was held there for nearly three months, and says it was not an especially easy experience—there was not enough food, the supply of water to drink or bathe with was not reliable, and it was extremely crowded. He was in a small cell—he describes it as about one-tenth the size of the comedor—and he slept there with nine other men. They were given thin mats to sleep on, but it was very difficult to be in such crowded conditions especially given the summer heat in southern Mexico.
In September, he was released for reasons he doesn’t understand—other Cubans were sent back to the island—but was not given any paperwork to ensure safe passage through Mexico. He went to the city of Tapachula, where many asylum-seekers await information, legal permission to travel through Mexico, or to begin the process of asylum in Mexico—and met up with a group of migrants and asylum-seekers from Cuba and Central America to continue the journey to the U.S. border. Rodrigo says he couldn’t stay in Tapachula as he knew that it was a dangerous place, and he did not consider seeking asylum in Mexico because he has family in Kentucky who would be able to support him, which he does not have in Mexico. Rodrigo’s group drove northward with a guide, and at a military checkpoint after about a day of driving, the migrants were discovered to be traveling through Mexico without authorization. Rodrigo was once again taken to a Mexican immigration detention facility called Acayucán, which he describes as fairly similar to the one he stayed at in Chiapas, but a little bit more harsh conditions. He was there for 40 days before being released again, and this time he was given a visa to travel to the border as an asylum-seeker.
Rodrigo opted to come to Nogales because he met another person on his journey, a young man from Honduras, who was headed here. He doesn’t feel entirely at ease given his past experiences in Mexico, and is afraid to walk alone and is especially afraid to be out at night, but he’s looking for work and has found a small room to rent alongside two other asylum-seekers. It’s not cheap—a small room without a refrigerator or gas costs 2,500 pesos per week (about $140)—but it affords him a little bit of privacy and agency after his months in detention.
Rodrigo is not hopeful about what awaits in the United States. He knows it is very likely he will be detained again, and that he will have to fight hard for protection. But he’s afraid of what would happen if he were to go back to Cuba, and he wants to provide a way for his children to survive, and so he is committed to continuing the hard, uncertain journey to the United States.