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Surge of Cuban migrants at the southern border is breaking historical records

  • Economic crisis and political repression are driving the largest exodus of Cubans from the island. They are welcome in South Florida. But when they arrive, many end up trapped in legal limbo by new immigration restrictions. (Lea este artículo en español)
Publicado 24 Ago 2022 – 12:22 PM EDT | Actualizado 24 Ago 2022 – 01:06 PM EDT
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Reyniel Sanchez, 31, is still dealing with the trauma of leaveing Cuba and being held at gunpoint by Mexican criminals in Reynosa. He finally reached Miami in May 2022. Crédito: Univision / David Adams

Adrian Suarez hadn’t been working long in his first job as an electrical engineer in Cuba when he began having political problems last year.

"They warned me that I wasn't an ideal employee, for expressing things they did not agree with," he told Univision. "There (in Cuba) they don't let you think differently," he added.

After anti-government protests broke out in July, which were quickly crushed by police, the 26-year-old realized he had no future in Cuba.

With the help of relatives in Miami, Suarez and his girlfriend bought tickets for $3,700 each on a one-way charter flight from Havana to Managua, via Santo Domingo, joining the latest mass exodus of Cubans from the communist-run island which is on pace to surpass previous waves dating back to the 1960s.

Just since October last year, more than 178,000 Cubans have arrived in the United States, a six-fold increase from the same period last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “It’s the single largest number of Cuban migrants ever recorded in one year since the beginning of the postrevolutionary Cuban exodus—and, indeed, at any time in the history of Cuba,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University (FIU).

"This flood of immigrants is a reflection of the desperation and lack of hope on the island," he added.

Charter flights create air bridge from Cuba to Nicaragua

Like Suarez, most left the island via expensive charter flights to Nicaragua, one of Cuba’s closest leftwing allies, which dropped visa requirements for Cubans to fly to the capital Managua in November. Coyotes then transport the migrants across Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border, for another $4,000-$5,000 per person.

“You can't imagine what you're going to face on this trip. I lived a million experiences in a very short time,” said Suarez, who earned $30 a month in Cuba running a small, diesel-powered electricity plant outside the port city of Matanzas. He said his family paid $18,000 in total for the airfares and coyote.

As no airlines operate regular scheduled flights between Cuba and Nicaragua, charter companies have stepped in, offering roundabouts routes via the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Aruba. Tickets are sold through travel agencies in Miami, like CubaMax, and Facebook advertisements online, for between $3,500-$4,500 a seat - cash only.

"History is repeating itself" - Cuba's political and economic crisis

Cuba is suffering its worst political and economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s one-time strategic ally, more than 30 years ago. While it struggles to recover from the covid pandemic which upended its tourism-dependent economy, it is also dealing with mounting discontent from young Cubans who see no future under communism and risk losing their jobs or ending up in jail if they complain.

The Managua air bridge appears designed as an escape valve to reduce domestic pressure on the Cuban government by letting disaffected Cubans leave the island.

“They do it to get people to leave. It's like releasing steam from a pressure cooker. It's logical,” said Juan Primito, a 46-year-old Cuban-born metal worker standing in line with many newly arrived migrants one recent morning outside the Social Security office in Hialeah. “We’ve seen this manoever over and over again. History is repeating itself,” he added, saying he left Cuba 17-years-ago and had no family left in Cuba.

Six decades of migration from Cuba

In the early 1960s 250,000 Cubans left after the triumph of the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959. That number grew to 500,000 by the mid-1970s, and received another boost from the Mariel boatlift in 1980 which sent 120,000 to Miami. During the so-called ‘rafter’ crisis in the mid-1990s some 35,000 Cuban refugees were housed for months at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Navy Base in Cuba.

Some migrants have harrowing stories of the weeks they spent dodging police and criminal cartels in Central America and Mexico.

Reyniel Sanchez, a 31-year-old former electricity inspector in Havana, said he reached the United States May 8, after being kidnapped and narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Gulf Cartel in Reynosa, Mexico. “I thought they were going to a put a bullet in my head,” he said, visibly trembling as he described how he was held for several days at gunpoint. Two women in the group he was traveling with were gang raped in front of him.

They eventually escaped and crossed the Rio Bravo when their guard dozed off while smoking marijuana.

Sanchez is now on medication and says has difficulty sleeping because of migraines and anxiety attacks. He was hospitalized after what he says was a psychotic episode in which he heard voices. “I never suffered from anything like that before in Cuba,” he said.

At least 16 migrants died on a mountain road in Nicaragua the night of July 27, when the bus they were traveling in collided with two cars and crassed down a ravine. At least 13 of the victims were Venezuelan, while a total of 47 passengers were injured, mostly migrants headed to the United States.

In an unusual case, the Border Patrol announced last week that six undocumented Cubans were found in the back of a van during a traffic stop in Miami, suspected of being held by smugglers.

While most Cuban migrants arrive at the border with Mexico, a smaller number arrive by boat in South Florida. The U.S. Coast Guard sends back Cubans intercepted at sea almost weekly under a migration deal cut with the Cuban government. Some 4,440 have been interdicted since October, the U.S. Coast Guard announced this week.

Half a million migrants flee socialism since October 1

At the same time as the Cuban exodus, another 130,000 Venezuelan migrants and 134,500 Nicaraguans have arrived in the U.S. since October last year, accounting for almost half a million migrants from collapsing socialist regimes, the majority of them likely making their way to South Florida.

The wave began to hit Miami in February and local social services were quickly overwhelmed. “We had people sleeping on the sidewalk outside overnight to make a line for the next day’s appointments,” said Dr Raul Gonzalez, Managing Director at Integrum Health Group. Integrum is one of several agencies in Miami providing health and legal services to newly arriving migrants.

Gonzalez, a Cuban-born doctor who left the island in 2008. “We brought them food and gave them orientation,” he added.

Gonzalez took in four migrants himself, former patients in Cuba, and is currently paying their rent and electricity, about $1,900 a month.

"It's a phantom migration": migrants rely on generosity of family and friends

While, some parts of the country, especially border states like Texas, have struggled to cope with the migrant surge, it’s a different story in South Florida.

Despite the staggering numbers, the latest exodus from the region has had surprisingly little impact in Miami, where refugees – especially from Cuba - are mostly well received and quickly absorbed into the large immigrant community that has seen wave after wave from Latin America over decades.

“It's phantom immigration, barely noticeable” said Oasis Pena, a community liaison with Integrum. “Miami is a mecca for Cubans. The majority of people here speak Spanish and they have family who can house them temporarily and help them adjust,” said Pena, who left Cuba as a young girl in 1984.

Many migrants describe sleeping on sofas and spare rooms in the homes of family and friends.

“We hope to become independent as soon as possible, find work and look for our own house,” said Ana, a teacher from Santa Clara, who asked that her last name not be used. She left Cuba with her husband June 8 on a charter flight, paid for with the help of family in the United State and Europe. For now, they are staying with her husband’s relatives in Miami.

Most are eligible for monthly social benefits such as $250 in food stamps and $180 cash assistance, as well as Medicaid, but only fr the first three months. Immigration advocates complain that they take much longer to obtain driver's licenses and work permits, leaving them in financial limbo, unable to work legally.

However, many find work in local bars, restaurants and hotels, or in landscaping and construction, where employers are so desperate to find workers in the current economic climate that they are willing to turn a blind eye to the lack of proper documents.

"How else are we supposed to live", said one Cuban waitress serving coffee at a hotel in Coral Gables who said she arrived five months ago and was waiting for a work permit.

Local officials say migrants contribute to the economy

Local officials say Miami large exile population has helped mitigate the impact. “Because such a large majority of our population are diaspora, whether it’s first generation or they migrated themselves, we’re not operating in an environment of fear and outrage. It’s more like empathy and sympathy,” said Krystina Francois, the director for the Office of New Americans with Miami Dade County.

Even before the current exodus, immigrants made up almost 55 percent of the county’s population of 2.7 million.

Miami Dade Mayor Daniella Levine met with Biden administration officials in Washington earlier this year and requested additional federal assistance, but the county credits immigrants with sustaining economic growth, adding valuable entrepreneurial talent. “Immigrants’ spending power has helped revitalize local businesses,” according to a report by the county last year.

Immigrant households also contributed $4.3 billion to Social Security and $1.1 billion to Medicare in 2019, the report found.

Addiel Elias, aged 32, left Cuba in 2017 and is already a U.S. citizen with his own plumbing business. Last month he welcomed his father Benito Elias, 53, who escaped Cuba on a raft after he said he got into trouble with authorities for helping a dissident friend who was injured by police in a protest.

"Everyone wants to escape from there, from the regime. I lost a big part of my life there,” the older Elias said, still sunburned after spending five days at sea before making it to the Florida coast.

A manager in a food processing factory in the city of Cienfuegos, he was fired from his job and was facing a two-year jail sentence on what he says were trumped up charges of “misappropriation" of state assets.

His son tried to persuade him from taking a raft, worried that he is diabetic and has high blood pressure. “I told him to wait. He doesn’t swim. He came anyway. Yo me quede con la boca abierta,” said Addiel Elias.
Now that he is here, the older Elias has a job waiting. “ As soon as he gets his [work] papers he’s coming to work for me,” he son said proudly.

Tougher immigration system creates unusual dilemma for Cubans

Complicating matters for the Cuban migrants is the legal maze created by a confusing U.S.’s immigration system that was already overwhelmed before the latest migrant wave. In the past Cubans have usually found themselves paroled into the country as victims of communism, immediately affording them a privileged legal status enjoyed by no other migrants.

However, in the wake of harsh new anti-immigrant policies during the Trump administration, many Cubans are now being denied parole at the border like most other migrants, and instead find themselves apprehended and placed in deportation proceedings. For humanitarian reasons and also due to lack of space in detention facilities, almost all Cubans and Venezuelans are being released and allowed to temporarily remain in the country while they await the outcome of their case.

However, most Cubans can automatically apply for residency after one year in the country, under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, making deportation redundant.

The migrant wave has caught Florida’s influential Cuban American politicians in a dilemma, on the one hand wanting to be seen to be tough on illegal immigration while also not wanting to abandon their compatriots.

Florida’s Lt Governor Jeanette Nuñez, who is a daughter of Cuban parents created a Twitter storm on Friday when she gave an interview to a Miami radio station in which she blamed the Biden administration for allowing the latest wave of Cubans to enter the country illegally, and proposed sending them on buses to Biden’s home state of Delaware. The governor's office was quick to attempt to walk back her words after Democrats seized on her comment to suggest Republicans were abandoning Cubans exiles, historically an important constituency for the party.

U.S. and Cuba taking steps to ease the crisis

Meanwhile, the migrant wave shows no signs of slowing, as Cuba's economy lurches from one crisis to another. One of its premier 5-star hotels in Havana, the Saratoga, collapsed after a gas explosion in May, killing 35 people.

In the heat of the summer, Cubans are now having to put up with six-hour power cuts during the day. To make matters worse, earlier this month a major fuel depot in Matanzas was destroyed by a massive fire, killing 16 people, mostly fire and rescue workers.

Cuba has taken some steps to improve conditions on the island by issuing more private sector employment permits and also allowing Cuban small businesses to import goods from abroad.

The Biden administration hopes that loosening of restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba announced in May will stem the flow. The State Department also recently announced the reopening of consular services in Cuba, and renewal of a 20,000 annual visas under an immigration agreement with Cuba.

“We are working hard on reopening legal pathways for Cubans to be reunited with their families in the U.S. For example, the U.S. Embassy in Havana has restarted processing all immediate relative of U.S. citizens categories,” a spokesperson for the State Department told Univision Noticias.

Some Cuban exiles complain it can take years to get an appointment at the U.S. embassy due to long waiting lists for family reunification visas.

Cuban detentions at the border dropped in June to 16,448, down from a peak of more than 35,000 in April.
But the number went back up in July to 20,496.

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RELACIONADOS:ImmigrationLatin America