Santiago Perez, Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2019
A surge of Cuban asylum seekers, long accustomed to preferential treatment under U.S. migration policies, are being stopped by U.S. government efforts to contain a tide of Central Americans migrating north.
Thousands of Cuban migrants have been stranded for months in violent towns along the U.S.-Mexico border, trying to request asylum in the U.S. even as the Trump administration imposes more restrictions on asylum seekers.
In the first nine months of fiscal year 2019 ending in September, more than 16,100 Cuban migrants sought admission at U.S. ports of entry, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures. The surge more than doubles the number for the previous full fiscal year and is also above full-year 2017 levels.
Large groups of Cubans also have been stuck near Mexico’s border with Guatemala, as they wait for permits that allow them to continue their trek north. Thousands have been detained within Mexico. In the southern town of Tapachula, home to Mexico’s largest detention center, Cuban detainees have rioted and staged several escapes.
Analysts say Cuban migration has spiked partly as a result of President Trump’s attempt to ratchet up economic pressure on the Cuban regime, worsening living conditions. A nascent Cuban private sector catering to U.S. tourists was hit hard by the Trump administration’s decision to ban U.S.-based cruise ships from traveling to Cuba and impose restrictions on sending remittances to the island.
Cuban migrants historically were given privileged treatment as political refugees rather than economic migrants. Since the Cuban revolution in 1959, about 1.3 million Cubans have entered the U.S., many in massive immigration waves including the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which saw about 125,000 Cubans arrive on Florida shores on a flotilla of boats and rafts.
In recent weeks, Cubans also have been caught up by a new U.S. government rule that makes it far harder for immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to even apply. The rule, currently being challenged in court, requires asylum seekers who pass through a third country to first apply for refugee status in that country rather than in the U.S.
Cubans go to great lengths to leave the island, traveling to countries like Guyana or Nicaragua, which have more flexible visa requirements for Cubans than other countries in the region. Then they work their way up to the U.S. overland, a trek that is longer than the journey for Central Americans and includes natural barriers like Panama’s dense Darién jungle.
More than 5,500 Cuban migrants have been detained by Mexican authorities so far this year, most of them near Mexico’s southern border, reaching levels not seen since 2015, government officials say. Cubans rank among the top four nationalities in apprehensions, after Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans.
In the southern town of Tapachula, close to 1,000 Cuban detainees rioted and more than 600 managed to escape in April, in one of several incidents involving Cuban migrants. More than 1,000 have been deported from Mexico so far this year, according to Cuban government estimates.
For those who make it to the U.S. border, they are being told to wait indefinitely in cities like Ciudad Juárez, one of Mexico’s most violent cities. Many live in decrepit guesthouses at the edge of the city’s underworld dominated by drug gangs, pimps and human smugglers known as coyotes.
Ciudad Juárez is also taking about half of the migrants returned to Mexico under a U.S. program informally known as Remain in Mexico. Mexican authorities estimate that around 12,000 people — most from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — have been sent back to Ciudad Juárez this year to wait for their U.S. asylum hearings. More than 300 Cubans have been returned in recent weeks to Ciudad Juárez under the program.