While Washington Debates Syrians, Cubans Rush for Asylum

Guillermo Herrera, JHU:

Since the appalling terrorist attack on France, the United States has been entranced by the question of accepting Syrian refugees. Despite President Obama’s fervent call to allow 10,000 Syrians, the House of Representatives passed a bill to block the asylum measure while at least 31 state governors have rejected the refugees’ admission. Politicians and the general populace in favor of such policies argue that Syrian migration poses a security threat and burdensome drain on American resources. Security aside, it is quite ironic to hear complaints of Syrian migration, specifically because of another migration crisis that has been brewing right below the United States in Cuba.

Since Obama’s announcement in December that the United States and Cuba would be renewing their relations, there has been a dramatic surge in the number of Cubans illegally migrating to the U.S. From January to March 2014, 4,296 Cubans arrived. In 2015, 9,371 Cubans arrived during the same period, a staggering 118 percent increase. It is also important to recognize that this statistic only describes the number of Cubans who successfully traveled. By law, Cubans caught at sea trying to reach the U.S. are returned to Cuba or, if fearful of prosecution, a third country. In terms of Cubans who have been apprehended by the Coast Guard, the 2015 fiscal year (October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015) had a 38 percent increase from last year.

“Cubans on the island are increasingly concerned that the special legal status that they have under current U.S. law might be taken away,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, to Reuters. According to the 1996 Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act, Cubans who reach U.S. soil are uniquely permitted legal residency. The policy, also known as “wet foot, dry foot”, was originally intended to provide asylum to political refugees following the Cuban revolution in 1959. Today, the policy is widely controversial. Some believe that the measure is outdated, strenuous, unfairly biased, or contradictory to the United States’ attempt to strengthen relations with Cuba. Others, argue that it is still a necessary lifeline and that removal would further indicate the United States’ acceptance of the authoritarian regime.

Cuba has repeatedly condemned the United States for not removing “wet foot, dry foot” on the grounds that the policy encourages illegal immigration and defies the two countries’ diplomatic pursuits. In spite of Cuban disapproval, the U.S. has tried to dismiss the rumor of immigration policy reform. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in August: “We currently have no plans whatsoever to alter the current migration policy, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, and we have no plans to change the wet foot/dry foot policy.” Cubans have shown no sign of slowing down, however, and continue to flee in fear of policy reform.

Cubans traveling by land typically start their journey by flying to Ecuador because it does not require them to have visas. From there, they move northward through Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and finally Mexico to arrive to the U.S. border. Along the way, many of these immigrants pay smugglers and bribe officials to continue onward. Altogether, the trip can take over two months. As a result of the booming flow of Cubans, the migration crisis has increasingly become a regional issue concerning the checkpoint countries that are involved.

The clearest example of this escalating regional tension occurred very recently on November 15, when Nicaragua summoned its military to forcefully prevent nearly 2,000 Cubans from crossing into the country from Costa Rica. Over 60 migrants returned to Costa Rica with injuries resulting from the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. Nicaragua, a close ally to Cuba, accused Costa Rica of slinging thousands of Cubans at its border and gravely violating its territorial sovereignty. Costa Rica, in turn, criticized Nicaragua’s response as “offensive” and “unjustified” at a press conference. This conflict comes just a week after Costa Rica shut down a critical trafficking ring that Cubans were paying to get across. Initially, Costa Rica threatened to return the migrants, but relented once their numbers continued mounting and instead started issuing seven-day transit visas.

The U.S. announced last Wednesday that it is aware of the situation. Although the U.S. pleaded countries to uphold the human rights of migrants, it recognized the fact that Cubans do not have a legal basis for remaining in these countries. Costa Rica has since called for the coordinated creation of a “humanitarian corridor” to protect the rights of Cubans who are traveling through Central America to the United States. In a radio interview, Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez argued, “we have nearly 2,000 people at the border… We have to do something with them, give them a solution.” While the Cubans in Costa Rica await to see whether Nicaragua will allow them to progress, the Red Cross is sheltering about 2,000 of them. The Red Cross states that two to three hundred Cubans are arriving to Costa Rica daily.

Whether they cross by land or sea, Cubans are embarking on a dangerous journey as they try to beat the U.S. to the supposed diplomatic punch. For this reason, there must be greater regional cooperation and decisiveness between Cuba and the United States. It is irresponsible for the U.S. to take a hands-off approach in the matter because the migration boom is a direct consequence of its policy decisions. Cubans do not trust that the “wet foot, dry foot” rule will last independent of official statements because it is, as Cuba asserts, totally contradictory to U.S. actions.
With the backlash against Syrian refugees and constant electoral debate on immigration, it is shocking that the issue has gone relatively unspoken of. Hoping that the issue will resolve itself and that Cubans will just turn back takes for granted the desperate resilience of these people. Dagoberto Fernandez, who is traveling with his pregnant wife, speaks for the thousands who are crossing when he says, “We don’t want to stay. We don’t want problems… We’re a group of human beings trying to achieve their dream: arrive in the United States.” United action must be taken before the conflict in Nicaragua ceases to be a unique incident.

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