Cuban Immigrants Flow Into The U.S., Fearing The Rules Will Change

Dec 29, 2015
Originally published on December 29, 2015 4:18 pm

There's been a breakthrough in an impasse that's left several thousand Cuban migrants stranded in Central America. In an agreement announced late Monday, Costa Rica and Guatemala will be two of the nations cooperating on an airlift that will allow as many as 8,000 Cubans to continue north toward the U.S.

That will continue a spike in migration that has been an unintended consequence of talks between the U.S. and Cuba over normalizing relations.

More than 43,000 Cubans entered the U.S. in fiscal 2015, which ended on Sept. 30 — the largest number in more than 20 years. The figure is up from a little over 24,000 for fiscal 2014.

Under long-standing U.S. policy, Cubans who make it to the U.S. are almost always granted political asylum and put on a path to permanent legal residency — a green card. But many Cubans suspect that improving ties will make it harder to come to the U.S.

Obama administration officials have denied this, saying the policy of automatically granting residence to Cubans will not change any time soon.

Many newly arriving Cubans still come to the U.S. on boats; in just the last week, more than 30 Cuban migrants landed in South Florida. But in the past few years, the majority of Cubans have made their way to the U.S. not by water, but over land, and via Central America in particular.

For Jordan Hernandez, who arrived in Miami just over two months ago, it was the culmination of a journey that began a year earlier, when he flew from Cuba to Ecuador.

Many Cubans have chosen this route because Ecuador did not require Cuban visitors to obtain a visa. Ecuador ended the policy this month, upsetting Cubans, who recently staged protests outside Ecuador's Embassy in Havana.

Hernandez says he lived in Ecuador for 11 months, but couldn't find steady work. He decided to head to the U.S. — making his way by bus and car though Central America.

He considers himself lucky: Shortly after his trip north, Nicaragua closed its borders to Cuban migrants, leaving thousands of Cubans stranded in Costa Rica and other Latin American countries. Through an interpreter, Hernandez says that includes some of his friends.

"I know a lot of people, a lot of friends, a lot of professionals in Cuba that are stuck in Ecuador right now," he said.

Life has not been easy for Hernandez in Miami. He doesn't have friends or family, he's waiting for a work permit and is trying to find a place to live. Hernandez says he's been making a little money by working construction, getting paid under the table.

When he first arrived here, he was homeless and sleeping on the street. That's where he was when he met Alicia Garcia, another former Cuban migrant.

Garcia came to the U.S. 20 years ago and runs a group that's providing aid for the latest wave of Cuban newcomers. She helps them apply for benefits — but says there's currently a waiting list of up to three months. For Hernandez and others without friends or family in the U.S., she says that's a problem.

"If you don't have any family here, where are you going?" she said. "You have to live on the street until your documents are ready. If you don't have any family, then you have to live on the street for two, three months."

For Cubans arriving in Miami, Church World Service is often one of their first stops. About three dozen newcomers are in the waiting room of the nonprofit group that resettles refugees, including Cuban migrants.

Francisco Figueroa, who works with Cuban newcomers, says many arrive without knowing anyone, in contrast to earlier waves of Cuban immigrants.

"It's a new generation, it's a younger generation. Basically what we're getting is in the 20s, 30s," he said. "So, it's younger people who do not know, or have no family in the United States."

Church World Service helps Cubans who are willing to start new lives outside of Florida, resettling in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas and other states where work is available and rent is relatively cheap.

The group's director in South Florida, Oscar Rivera, says his staff can handle the number of Cuban migrants it's seeing right now.

"We're more than able to manage as many as they come, as long as they come in an orderly fashion," he said.

It appears now that his group's workload may soon spike. Under Monday's deal, many more Cubans are likely to make their way to Miami.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are nearing the end of a year of increased migration to the United States from Cuba. More than 27,000 Cubans arrived here in the first nine months of the year. That's the largest number in more than two decades. Many Cubans are coming to the U.S. by a roundabout route they travel through Central America. And a new agreement will allow even more Cubans to be airlifted from Central America, Costa Rica, Guatemala. NPR's Greg Allen met a man who has taken that Central American route.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Many Cubans still come to the U.S. on boats. In just the last week, more than 30 Cuban migrants landed in South Florida. Under long-standing U.S. policy, Cubans who make it here are granted political asylum and receive permanent legal residency, a green card. But over the last few years, the majority of Cubans have made their way to the U.S. not by water but over land, through Central America. That was the route taken by Jordan Hernandez. He arrived in Miami just over two months ago. It was the culmination of a journey that began a year earlier, when he flew from Cuba to Ecuador.

JORDAN HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: Hernandez says he lived in Ecuador for 11 months but couldn't find steady work. He decided to head to the U.S., making his way by bus and car through Central America. He considers himself lucky. Shortly after his trip north, Nicaragua closed its borders to Cuban migrants. Thousands of Cubans have been stranded in Costa Rica and other Latin American countries. Through an interpreter, Hernandez says they include some of his friends.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Yeah, he knows a lot of people, a lot of friends, a lot of even professionals in Cuba that are even stuck in Ecuador right now.

ALLEN: But things have been hard for Hernandez in Miami. He doesn't have family or friends here. He's waiting for his work permit and in the meantime is trying to find a place to live.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Yeah, he says very expensive, definitely.

ALLEN: Hernandez says he's been making a little money by working construction. He gets paid under the table. When he first arrived here, he was homeless and sleeping on the street. That's where he met Alicia Garcia. Garcia is a former Cuban migrant herself. She came to the U.S. 20 years ago and runs a group that's providing aid for the latest wave of Cuban newcomers. She helps them apply for benefits but says there's currently a two-to-three-month waiting list. For Hernandez and others without friends or family in the U.S., she says that's a problem.

ALICIA GARCIA: If you don't have any family here, where you're going, you need to live on the street until your documents is ready. If you don't have any family, you need to live on the street for two or three months.

ALLEN: For Cubans arriving in Miami, this office is often one of their first stops. About three dozen newcomers are in the waiting room at Church World Service, a nonprofit group that resettles refugees, including Cuban migrants. Francisco Figueroa works with Cuban newcomers. He says many are like Jordan Hernandez, young people that, unlike earlier waves of Cuban migrants, arrive here without knowing anyone.

FRANCISCO FIGUEROA: It's a new generation. It's a younger generation. Basically, what we're getting is in their 20s, 30s. So it's younger people who do not know or have no family in the United States.

ALLEN: Church World Service helps Cubans who are willing start new lives outside of Florida. They're resettled in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas and other states where work is available and rent is relatively cheap. The group's director in South Florida, Oscar Rivera, says his staff can handle the number of Cuban migrants it's seeing currently.

OSCAR RIVERA: We're more than able to manage as many as they come, as long as they come in an ordered fashion.

ALLEN: But it appears now those numbers may soon spike. Under a deal announced yesterday, as many as 8,000 Cubans who were stranded in Costa Rica will now be allowed to continue their journeys north to the U.S. It's a deal likely to bring many more Cubans to Miami. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.