By Fulton Armstrong
The surge in Cuban migration – prolonged at this point by U.S. policy paralysis – may show a dip soon but is growing tortuous and dangerous. Since January 12, chartered aircraft and buses have been carrying about 360 Cubans a week from Costa Rica to El Salvador, and then through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, where they are admitted with special status. The US$550 cost of the trip is being paid by the migrants or unidentified “donors.” The air bridge has begun relieving pressure on Costa Rica, which has been caring for 8,000 Cubans since Nicaragua in October halted the underground railway transporting them up the Central American isthmus. (Three thousand more are reportedly stuck in Panama.) Despite the progress, an estimated 1,500 migrants have left holding facilities and turned to alien-smugglers to take them to Mexico (for $800) or to the United States ($1,500), according to press reports.
- Cubans’ fear of a change in U.S. migration policy since reestablishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations is most often cited as causing the surge, estimated at some 40,000 in 2015. It does not explain the estimated 20,000 who crossed into Texas in 2014 and before, when alien-smuggling networks were less developed.
- Ecuador’s agreement to establish visa requirements for Cubans promises to slow the immediate flow, but the crisis has revealed corruption among migration authorities throughout the region, which will make stopping it difficult.
- Central American resentment of the welcome Washington gives illegal migrants from Cuba is growing – aggravated in part by the arrival of airplanes from the United States full of deported citizens in the same timeframe. Senior officials from Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala have blamed the surge in trafficked Cubans on the preferences the United States gives them.
The U.S. Coast Guard reports an increase in the volume and violence of seaborne migration. Migrants interdicted in Fiscal Year 2015 (ending September 30) grew to almost 3,000 – 900 more than the previous year – and, according to press reports, surged to 1,500 in the last quarter of 2015. The Coast Guard says the migrants have concluded that Cuba’s economy will not improve even after U.S.-Cuba normalization, and they want to go before U.S. migration policy changes. The service has reported a spike in violent confrontations with Coast Guard officers, violence against fellow migrants, and even suicide threats..
The U.S. government’s mantra that it will not change policy toward either overland or seaborne migrants is not working – and could even be backfiring by reminding Cubans of the special treatment they receive upon arrival. The airlift and bussing of thousands of migrants from Costa Rica to the United States helps Costa Rica deal with its crisis, but also signals yet again to Cubans remaining on the island how far the United States will go to bring them in. Violence among seaborne migrants has traditionally been rare, but the increased aggressiveness suggests that migrants have the impression that they can act with impunity and still be welcomed into the country. Overland migrants’ preference to use coyotes, known for violence, is another red flag. The United States has expended political capital by washing its hands of the Cuban migrant mess in Central America, and grumbling among the region’s leaders suggests that options like airlifts will disappear soon. U.S. law, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, fully empowers the President to turn off the green light to undocumented Cuban migration – and reality could very well nudge him in that direction soon.
February 4, 2016