The number of Cubans arriving at the US-Mexico border could reach a historic high by the end of the year.
The amount crossing the border in March exceeded that arriving from Central America, according to internal Customs and Border Protection data obtained by NBC News.
The seven-day average for Cubans crossing the border as of March 26 was 1,200, up 460% from last year.
The Washington Post reported that 32,000 Cubans were arrested by the United States along the Mexican border in March. By comparison, about 16,600 Cubans were arrested in February.
Senior Department of Homeland Security officials say they are largely unable to deport Cubans because their government refuses to take them back.
The communist-ruled island is grappling with food and medicine shortages as well as runaway inflation, which has been made worse by the pandemic. The dire situation led to protests across the island in July which were followed by a strong crackdown and mass trials with heavy prison sentences for some of the protesters.
Cuba says it advocates legal migration. The government accuses the United States of being responsible for the increase in migration, saying that the ongoing economic sanctions as well as the closure of the consular section of the Havana embassy encourage Cubans to seek other forms migration.
“The closure of consular services has affected families in Cuba and in the United States,” Johana Tablada, deputy director of American affairs at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told NBC News.
She called the US policy towards Cuba “inhumane, callous, dishonest, extremely cruel and illegal”.
The United States has said it will resume issuing some immigrant visas starting in May. It was closed in 2018 following mysterious health incidents.
Nicaragua, a close ally of Cuba, announced in November that it would lift visa requirements for Cubans to promote trade, tourism and humanitarian family relations. But the result was an exodus of Cubans to Nicaragua so they could get to Mexico’s border with the United States.
A flight to Nicaragua can cost upwards of $3,000, a price out of reach for most Cubans. Those who manage to buy a ticket sell a lot of their belongings and often get help from relatives abroad.
For Cubans increasingly desperate and with few resources, their only option is to make the most perilous journey at sea on makeshift boats and rarely seaworthy vessels. Most Cubans who cross the sea are sent back to Cuba.
A man has made headlines after he was found stuck on a windsurfer off the Florida Keys. The cancer survivor who had a colostomy bag was apparently seeking medical treatment.
“There’s a trend every few years, especially during an economic crisis,” said Jorge Duany, an anthropology professor at Florida International University who specializes in migration.
He said that historically, every exodus has served as a release valve for Cuba. The exodus through the port of Camarioca in 1965, the “freedom flights” that followed, the Mariel boat lift in 1980 and the raft crisis in the 1990s all led to a mass migration of Cubans.
The current economic crisis, the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a close ally of Cuba, is “the perfect storm”, Duany said. “All of these factors drive people to look for ways to leave, either legally or illegally.” .”
NBC News producer Orlando Matos contributed from Havana, Cuba.
To follow Latin NBC to Facebook, Twitter and instagram.
Orlando Matos contributed.