Another Mariel in the Making?
SAN JUAN – As the normalizing of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba draws nearer, the influx of Cuban immigrants seeking to reach U.S. soil or Latin American countries threatens to turn into a mass emigration similar to the 1980 Mariel boatlift. However, contrary to Mariel and to what has been the historical route for Cuban émigrés, the preferred course now is by land, according to media reports.
As of November 2015, some 3,000 Cuban immigrants on their way north have gathered at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border waiting for the Nicaraguan government to allow them passage. Nicaragua, which had been acting as a receiving country for Cuban immigrants detained in Costa Rica, changed its policy earlier that month and now requires Cuban nationals to obtain a visa before reaching the border or any port of entry. Immigrants arriving at the borders without visas are being turned back to Costa Rica and/ or their entrance to the country blocked.
According to Costa Rica’s Immigration Administration, the number of Cubans arriving to the country has spiked from about 50 in 2011 to 12,166 from January 2015 to September 2015.
Immigration Administration officials have said Cuban immigrants arriving to Costa Rica come through Ecuador, where there has been no visa requirement to enter the country since 2008. That is, up until Dec. 1, 2015, when the Ecuadorian government started requiring visas only for Cuban nationals entering the country.
“Our commitment in San Salvador was that starting on Dec. 1, Ecuador will require visas from Cuban citizens, not because we have something against Cuba…. We do this to stop the human rights violations and the loss of lives,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Xavier Lasso, referring to negotiations at the Sistema de Integración de Centroamérica meeting on Nov. 24, 2015, in El Salvador.
Cubans who want to reach the U.S. fl y to Ecuador and then travel by land and sometimes by air, through Colombia and Central America until reaching the U.S.- Mexico border, according to media reports. Once in Ecuador, most of these immigrants, who have had the means to buy a plane ticket and maybe some additional money sent by family and relatives living in the U.S., fall prey to smugglers offering to transport them as far as their money could get them in their journey north. For the 3,000 Cuban immigrants now camped in the town of Peñas Blancas, near the border with Nicaragua, the journey seems to have ended in Costa Rica.
“We warned this could happen…. It’s not as if this problem suddenly came into being and now we are taking action. The existence of this problem has been made visible in the clearest terms after a human smuggling network was dismantled last week,” said Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González recently.
As more immigrants continue to pour into Peñas Blancas, the situation has deteriorated to the point that a group of several hundred of them tried to cross illegally into Nicaragua, only to be forcefully repelled by the Nicaraguan Army. Many had to receive medical attention after the incident. Nicaragua has since closed its border with Costa Rica.
Despite the risks of the long overland journey, even migration authorities consider it a safer way than taking to the sea. Nevertheless, the number of migrants opting to brave the sea is also on the rise.
In Puerto Rico, the number of Cuban migrants being detained by the agency showed a dramatic increase in fiscal year 2015, said Jeff rey Quiñones, public affairs officer for U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP).
“In fiscal 2015, for the first time in the office’s history in Puerto Rico, the number of Cuban nationals opting to reach U.S. territory by sea has exceeded the number of Dominican nationals, historically the most numerous group of undocumented migrants arriving to the island,” Quiñones said. He couldn’t off er the specific number of Cuban migrants arriving to Puerto Rico because the CBP hasn’t officially certified the statistic.
The same is happening with Cubans going to Florida. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Migration Policy Institute, reported some 7,167 Cubans have successfully crossed the Florida Straits to reach the Miami area during the first nine months of fiscal 2015. In fiscal 2014, the number of Cuban nationals reaching Miami was 2,992.
On the other hand, the Pew Research Center reports that “overall, 43,159 Cubans entered the U.S. via ports of entry in fiscal 2015, according to [CBP] data obtained through a public records request. This represents a 78% increase over the previous year, when 24,278 Cubans entered.”
CONCERNS OF CHANGE IN U.S. POLICY TOWARD CUBANS
According to U.S. and Latin American immigration officials, one of the possible reasons for the increase in the number of Cubans traveling illegally by land or sea to the U.S. is their fear that with the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana, there could be changes in U.S. immigration policy that could be less favorable to Cubans.
While U.S. immigration laws haven’t changed, there is a distinct possibility they will. Dec. 17, 2015, is one year to the day it was publicly revealed that Washington and Havana had been secretly negotiating the resumption of full diplomatic relations. The reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana, removing Cuba from the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring states and increasing travel and business opportunities between the two countries are part of the ripple effects from those meetings.
This week, during an interview with Yahoo News, President Barack Obama unequivocally said, “I am very much interested in going to Cuba.” Even though he conditioned his visit to “the right conditions,” he also stated “there is an overwhelming support” on both sides for normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba.