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Cubans arrive in record numbers along the Mexican border

MIAMI — Cuban migrants are arriving in the United States in greater numbers since the Mariel boat lift in 1980, crossing the southern land border into the United States.

Last month, more than 32,000 Cubans were arrested in the United States along the Mexican border, double the number arriving in February, according to unpublished US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures obtained by the Washington. Post. CBP is on track to apprehend more than 155,000 Cubans in the current fiscal year, records show, nearly four times the 2021 total and a twelvefold increase from 2020.

Many of the new arrivals travel to Nicaragua, which dropped visa requirements for Cubans last fall, then travel overland to Del Rio, Texas, or Yuma, Arizona, where they report to U.S. border officials to begin the asylum application process. .

Maria Victoria Gonzalez, who arrived in Miami with her husband and two children in January after flying to Nicaragua, described the current exodus from Cuba as “a rush to Managua”, referring to the capital of Central American countries. “Almost everyone from the younger generations is leaving,” she said.

Cuba’s migration boom has been largely ignored amid a record global influx under President Biden. CBP arrests along the southern border hit a record 1.73 million in fiscal year 2021, and this year’s total is on track to be even higher.

The arrival of so many Cubans is straining communities here in South Florida, while once again acting as a relief valve for communist authorities facing potential unrest amid the worst economic crisis ever. has gripped the island for decades.

Michael Bustamante, a Cuban historian at the University of Miami, said the wave of migration is putting new pressure on the Biden administration to overhaul its strategy, after leaving most aspects of the Trump administration’s approach in place. to “maximum pressure” which has tightened US economic sanctions. Street protests that erupted in Cuban cities last July were seen as a vindication of that strategy by supporters of former President Donald Trump, Bustamante said, but now the tougher sanctions — combined with his own economic failures of Cuba – stimulate emigration.

“People are coming out of Dodges rather than onto the streets, which is clear evidence that the maximum pressure approach doesn’t work,” Bustamante said. “This is not a victory for American politics or a victory for the Cuban people.”

Cubans who cross the border illegally face little risk of being quickly deported or “deported” under the Title 42 public health law that US authorities have used to remove thousands of Haitian migrants from a camp in Del Rio. last September. Cubans fleeing the communist system have long enjoyed preferential treatment.

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According to preliminary data obtained by The Post, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported only 20 Cubans in the past five months, and only 95 in fiscal year 2021. Authorities have deported 1,583 Cubans in 2020, according to ICE data.

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said it was coordinating with the State Department to hold “regular discussions with partner nations in the hemisphere on issues related to migration” and “continues to s Engage with foreign governments to improve cooperation with countries that consistently deny or delay the repatriation of their nationals.DHS did not respond to questions about the Cuban government’s specific restrictions on the return of Cuban migrants.

About 125,000 Cubans arrived in 1980 during the Mariel boat lift, when the island’s ports and marinas were opened to allow American ships to pick up anyone who wanted to leave. Another 30,000 Cubans reached the United States across the Florida Strait during the 1994 “rafter” crisis.

After this episode, US officials agreed to increase family reunification visas and open a visa lottery system allowing 20,000 Cubans to emigrate legally each year. But those legal avenues were crippled after the State Department withdrew most consular personnel from Cuba in 2017 after the unexplained “health incidents” known as Havana Syndrome.

Cubans were required to travel to Guyana for visa processing, slowing the entire process and contributing to a large visa backlog.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana said Wednesday it was preparing to restart limited consular services in May, but only for relatives of U.S. citizens.

The current volume of migration to the United States far exceeds potential legal channels. In addition to flights to Nicaragua, Cubans also travel there via third countries, including Panama. When Panamanian authorities imposed a transit visa on Cuban travelers last month, protesters surrounded the Panamanian embassy in Havana.

CBP records show that about 75% of Cubans arrested along the Mexican border are adults traveling alone. Some Cubans admit to hiring smuggling guides to transport them through Mexico, while others say they rely on social media, choosing Del Rio and Yuma for their reputations as relatively safe places and easy to cross.

A smaller number of Cuban migrants, around 750, have reached the United States by other means in the past six months, including a cancer survivor rescued from the Florida Keys in late March on a windsurfer.

Some Cubans are released at the border with a form of temporary legal status known as humanitarian parole, but others are sent back to ICE or US immigration courts to face deportation proceedings. . US authorities say they grant humanitarian parole on a case-by-case basis, but have not explained how they make those decisions.

Santiago Alpizar, an immigration attorney in South Florida, said he had had so many cases in recent months that he couldn’t see new clients in April. They are registered as having arrived illegally, which means they are not automatically eligible for the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 which allows Cubans to apply for a green card after one year in the United States.

“The majority of my cases now have to apply for asylum,” he said.

Alpizar – who fled by sea during the 1994 crisis – has written letters to Cuban-American politicians urging them to restore the visa lottery as well as the family reunification program. Many Cubans heading to Nicaragua have been separated from spouses, children, and other close family members for years with little or no access to a U.S. visa application process.

Oasis Peña, a community activist from Miami, said the massive new wave of Cuban arrivals is already straining agencies that work with migrants. At Integrum Medical Group, where she helps connect Cubans to social services, people start lining up the night before to sign up for benefits like food stamps and legal assistance.

“There are so many people,” she said. “It is humanly impossible to serve everyone.”

Peña, who came to the United States at 14, has worked with migrants for three decades. “I’ve never seen so many people arrive across the border,” she said.

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Gonzalez – who arrived with his family in Miami in January – left the island days after Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a longtime ally of the Cuban government, lifted visa requirements.

As a journalism professor in the central city of Santa Clara, Gonzalez, 36, said she earned the equivalent of about $100 a month. Her husband, a mechanical engineering instructor, earned less. Their combined income was barely enough to feed their two children, she said.

Their situation has become more precarious during the pandemic, as Cuba’s economy has suffered its worst contraction since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Prices soared as Cuban leaders implemented painful currency reform in early 2021. Queues to buy basics such as meat and cooking oil stretched for hours . And the government’s repressive response to the protests on July 11, 2021 — when authorities handed down lengthy prison sentences — made it clear to many young Cubans that change was unlikely anytime soon.

The Nicaragua route finally gave Cubans like Gonzalez a route that seemed reasonably safe. With the help of American relatives, the family purchased four tickets to Managua at $3,400 each – with demand so high that commercial and charter airlines are ripping off travellers, migrants say.

At the airport in Cuba, Gonzalez said so many people were boarding the flight that there was not a single empty seat in the waiting room. Other passengers described selling all their belongings – including homes and cars – to fund the trips. Many had paid huge sums to buy their tickets, with a couple paying $4,500 each.

No one was carrying heavy suitcases. When the plane finally took off from Cuba, some on board cheered.

Gonzalez and his family arrived in the middle of the night and checked into a hotel before embarking on a journey that would take a month to reach the US border. They took buses and taxis, stopping occasionally to rest and consider their next steps. Gonzalez said they were never arrested or detained by Mexican authorities, or asked to show their passports.

During the trip, they announced to their children – aged 8 and 4 – that they were going to visit their grandfather in the United States, gradually revealing that they were about to embark on a new life.

The final leg of the journey is the one Gonzalez says he remembers most vividly. Although many cross the Rio Grande, Gonzalez had heard stories of people drowning and was too scared. Instead, they decided to cross the desert to Arizona.

They started around 9 p.m. with a group that grew to 30-40 people. Her 4-year-old son wore tennis shoes with flashing lights. Someone told her she had better take them off because they might attract attention. It was cold but he had to arrive in the United States barefoot. Her husband carried him on his back, while Gonzalez held his daughter’s hand.

Quickly – almost running – they ran towards Yuma.

Within 20 minutes they were in Arizona, sitting on benches next to the border wall. Patrol officers treated them and other families with children first. They spent the next three days in CBP custody. Then they were released, taking a bus to Phoenix, then a flight to Miami.

Three months later, their daughter is now enrolled in school. They have applied to have their son join a pre-kindergarten program next year. “We know we have to start from scratch,” Gonzalez said. “We are aware that nothing is easy. But we are full of hope.

Miroff reported from Washington.

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