Isel Rojas put his dream of leaving Cuba on hold when the United States ended a generous immigration policy for island residents. But watching coverage of migrant caravans heading from Central America toward the United States on Cuban television last year, he began to see a new path.
One morning in January, he woke up and told his wife he was finally ready. Fifteen days later, he was gone.
“If they can do it, why can’t we?” said Rojas, a 48-year-old who worked in agriculture in the eastern city of Holguin, recalling the images of young men and families travelling en masse to the Mexico-US border.
Rojas is now waiting to apply for US asylum in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, which has become a magnet for Cuban migrants. Political repression and bleak economic prospects remain the primary reasons cited by Cubans for migrating from the Communist-ruled island, a Cold War foe of the United States. But some in Ciudad Juarez say news of the caravans also motivated them, giving them the impression the United States was accepting migrants.
Since early last year, the caravans have been a frequent target of US President Donald Trump as he advocates for stricter immigration policies. Critics say the president’s statements about the caravans, including a series of angry tweets, have ironically enlarged the groups and publicised asylum as a possible avenue to legal status.
“The person who created the media coverage and who drove the issue of the caravans has been President Trump,” Tonatiuh Guillen, the head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, said on local radio last week.
The addition of Cubans to those flows is adding to the pressure on already overwhelmed shelters and border authorities in Mexico and the United States. More than 100,000 people were apprehended or presented themselves to authorities in March, the White House said on Friday, calling it the highest number in a decade. Trump has threatened a border shutdown or tariffs on Mexico in retaliation.
What’s more, some say Trump’s harder line on Cuban relations has contributed to a sense of gloom on the economically weak and tightly controlled island.
The White House and the Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mexico’s migration institute declined to comment.
Like Rojas, many Cubans who reached northern Mexico in recent months ultimately travelled with a smaller group, and caravans were not a factor for all who left. But a caravan of 2,600 migrants currently contained by authorities in southern Mexico, the largest this year, includes dozens from the island. Mexican immigration officials said they flew some 60 Cubans home on Friday.
In Ciudad Juarez, Cubans represent 75 to 80 per cent of some 3,600 migrants in town, said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the state commission for population. The wait to apply for asylum is about two months, shelter directors say.
The bottleneck highlights a new reality: Cubans do not enjoy the same
advantages they once did in the US immigration system.
“For the first time this year, Cubans are being treated like everyone else,” said Wilfredo Allen, a Miami-based lawyer who works with Cuban migrants. “The special door for the Cubans has already closed.”
In 2017, US President Barack Obama ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which allowed Cubans who reached US soil to stay but returned any intercepted at sea, triggering a decline in immigration from the island.
In the first five months of fiscal-year 2019, 6,289 Cubans turned up at ports of entry on the US-Mexico border without papers. That number is on track to nearly double the total for the whole of fiscal-year 2018, according to data from US Customs and Border Protection.
While Cubans generally face slightly better chances of receiving asylum than Central Americans because their tales of political persecution are often more clear-cut, success is anything but assured, Allen said. Allen estimates only 20 to 30 per cent of his Cuban clients will win their cases. — Reuters