Most migrants moving through Mexico come from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. But Cubans are also joining these migrations in increasingly large numbers. According to April data from Mexican officials, there were about 2,800 Cubans in Ciudad Juárez awaiting asylum.
This latest development has a recent history.
On January 12, 2017, just days before leaving the White House, former President Barack Obama eliminated the policy known as “wet foot, dry foot” that applied to Cubans. The policy treated Cubans as political refugees, allowing those who arrived on U.S. soil to stay in the country and legalize their status. Cubans fleeing political repression in the Caribbean nation as a basis for asylum now have to endure the current backlogged and time-consuming asylum process like everyone else.
At the time, Obama’s unexpected announcement left thousands of U.S.-bound Cubans stranded in third countries, cities in Mexico along the Texas border, and at Miami International Airport. Many had hoped that Donald Trump would have reversed Obama’s directive, but it still remains intact. Individuals who were in transit during the period when “wet foot, dry foot” changed were arrested and caught in legal limbo.
On January 13, 2017, Aquilino and Georgina Hernández experienced that odyssey as they were detained just hours after Obama ended the policy. The Cuban couple lost their asylum case at Miami’s Krome Immigration Court in April, and defense lawyers were unable to convince the judge that Caraballo, a small farmer, would be persecuted if he returned to the island. Instead, the elderly couple were being used as pawns to establish legal precedent in dealing with Cuban migrants. Had they arrived at Miami International Airport just a few hours before the new policy came into force, they would have quietly been reunited with their two children, both of whom live in Miami-Dade.
Other Cubans arriving too late were left stranded at various ports of entry in Mexico, where they stayed for several months. There continue to be reports of Cubans who are not allowed to seek asylum or are dissuaded by Border Patrol agents from doing so. The Mexican government responded by legalizing the status of nearly 600 Cubans who were in Nuevo Laredo in April. But in late May, local media outlets reported that most of those Cubans had already applied for asylum in the United States in an effort to be reunited with their families already in the country.
The toughest challenge for Cubans who arrive without documents after Obama’s policy change is navigating the complex immigration and asylum laws, many times without legal representation while inside facilities that even most North Americans perceive to be prisons.
More recently, Ciudad Juárez has become the preferred crossing point for Cubans. Migrants say that it has a reputation for being safer for Cubans and less crowded with asylum-seekers than other popular crossing points. Word of this travels through the Cuban migrant grapevine—in WhatsApp messaging groups, by phone, and on social media.
In Ciudad Juárez, Cuban migrants have also run up against the Trump administration’s system, which currently limits the daily number of asylum seekers allowed to present their cases at ports of entry. This practice has given rise to informal waiting lists in border towns, leaving Cubans and others to bide their time (in migrant shelters, in budget hotels, and in cheap rented rooms) while suppressing the impulse to hire a smuggler and cross illegally.
Regarded by many Cubans as a safer and more orderly place to seek asylum than other crowded Mexican border crossings, Ciudad Juárez has a reputation as one of the world’s most violent cities. This port of entry, just south of El Paso, Texas, received relatively few asylum seekers until late last year. Many Cubans are dismayed by the long wait they find and grow increasingly concerned about safety after reports of Cubans going missing in Mexico. Few ever leave the shelters or venture too far from each other—risking the safety of being part of a larger group.
Since Trump began putting pressure on Mexico to help curb the flow of migrants, the Mexican government has been jailing more migrants at its southern border in Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico. There, it is estimated that as many as 2,000 migrants are being held in a jail with a capacity that had been listed at less than 1,000. Of those migrants, approximately 70-80% are Cuban nationals with the rest being made up of Central Americans and Haitians.
Many Cuban families, at home and abroad, have been filing complaints and holding protests bringing the Mexican government’s treatment of Cuban migrants to light. Cubans are claiming that their relatives have reported severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and not enough food in detention centers.
The conditions in the jail prompted over 600 migrants, mostly Cubans, to flee on foot from the detention center in what the media is calling the largest “mass escape” in recent memory. However, the agents in the compound were not armed, and media reports stated that there was no confrontation. In other words, they were able to walk out without resistance. The National Immigration Institute stated that 35 of the “escaped” migrants returned voluntarily.
The so-called escape came on the same day the country’s top human rights official toured the facility to check the poor conditions based on statements from detainees. Mexican newspaper Reforma reported that Haitians and Central Americans were also among those who fled the facility —which has been crammed with people— countering reports in the United States that state “thousands of Cuban migrants flee Mexican detention center” as reported by USA Today and many others in late April.
Hours after the mass escape, throngs of detained migrants raised their fists in the air and chanted “We want food! We want out!” Many of the locals suspect authorities opened the gates to let the escaped migrants flee to reduce pressure on the detention center, knowing that those who left will no longer be allowed to apply for humanitarian visas, asylum, or residence permits in Mexico. Activists argue that the Mexican government purposely made conditions so bad that migrants would have to fight for a place to lie down or a little bit of food.
Cubans in the United States continue to enjoy a relatively easy path to citizenship through the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, allowing for Cuban nationals, lawfully present for one year, to apply for a green card. The act illustrates how Cubans’ once favorable treatment in the U.S. immigration system collides with the Trump administration’s tightening regulations around the migration of people of color to this country.
The “wet foot, dry foot” policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 were meant to be used as a tool to drive a wedge between Cubans and the island’s communist government. Some argue that for the most part, it worked. Others declare it didn’t provide the desired result the U.S. government would have preferred. Suggesting it was expected to have a much larger impact (in combination with other sanctions and blockades), that never came to fruition. The side effect of that policy proves the United States could do much better in receiving asylees at the border.
While it doesn’t seem feasible to accept asylees in the same fashion across the board. I’m a firm believer in that the solution to today’s immigration issues lies somewhere within the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. We need similar and more humane policies that apply to all asylum seekers regardless of where they are from—along with more immigration judges and more efficient and controlled administration for the handling of asylum seekers (and abolishing ICE).
While migrants at the border represent many different nations, they all share the same dream of contributing to a free and safe society with the promise of opportunity. They are representative of every one of us. Regardless of where our heritage is from. We are one and the same, and we should all be fighting them.
Because what’s happening to our people —torture, death, and the inhumanity of it all— at the hands of the United States government, is not acceptable.
Arturo Tha Cuban is a front-line anti-racism activist, essayist and upcoming author who advocates for equality, justice and accountability. He tweets from @ExtremeArturo.