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There’s a Big Increase of Cubans Heading Through Mexico to the US

Ballooning numbers of Cubans are entering Mexico and heading north. They say they fear that improved US-Cuban relations will lead to changes in the laws that currently allow them to stay if they reach US soil.

by Martha Pskowski
Nov 8 2015, 2:45pm

Imagen por Martha Pskowski

One recent evening 200 Cubans milled about the grounds of an immigration detention center in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, smoking cigarettes and checking cell phone messages. They waited all day before agents started calling out names.

Mike Hernández Aroche, 28, of Cienfuegos, Cuba, was one of the first. Beaming he showed off the piece of paper he received through the grate of the fence.

"I'll be in Florida by Friday!" he shouted.

Photo by Martha Pskowski

Last December's announcement that the United States and Cuba would re-open diplomatic relations opened the floodgates on undocumented Cuban immigration. Many on the island fear the rapprochement will soon lead to changes in the laws that currently allow those Cubans who reach US soil to stay.

The dangerous gamble of getting to Florida by boat means ever more Cubans are attempting to enter the US via Mexico, where they can also take advantage of "safe passage" visas handed out by the Mexican authorities. Seven out of ten Cubans now arrive in the US from Mexico, most frequently at Texas entry-points. Mexico has reported a threefold increase in immigration detentions of Cubans from 2014 to 2015.

"The Cuban government is in negotiations with the United States, and the Cuban Adjustment Law could change," 46-year-old Rolando Yanes Fabrega laid out his concerns outside the main immigration post in Tapachula waiting to turn himself in to get a visa. "That's why there's this mass migration right now. The law could change as soon as next year."

Related: US and Cuba Announce Plans to Open Embassies in Each Other's Capitals

After serving in the Cuban army as a young man, Fabrega followed in his father's footsteps as a fisherman in the province of Villa Clara. Fabrega worked for those fortunate enough to own a boat and then sold fish on the street and to restaurants. He maintained that routine for over twenty years, but last winter was tired of barely making ends meet.

He headed to Quito, Ecuador, arriving on December 24. Ecuador has been the main entry point for Cubans seeking to get to the US by land since the country stopped requiring visas in 2008.

After 10 months working low-wage restaurant jobs, and with the recent thawing of relations between Cuba and the US in mind, Fabrega decided it was time to go north. He set off with four other Cubans on October 11 this year.

One of his traveling companions sitting alongside him under the shade of overhanging palm trees as the morning sun heated up the asphalt was 30-year-old Jorneck López Suárez. He made the equivalent of $12 a month as a grocer in Cuba. He had arrived in Ecuador just a few days before the group began their mainland journey.

They took 23 days to cross Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala.

"The worst was Colombia," Fabrega said of the six-country journey. "The police there are all corrupt. We spent three days crossing Colombia and paid bribes five different times."

Once they are issued safe passage visas in Mexico they said they planned to travel straight to the US border. Fabrega said he wanted to go first to Miami where one of his brothers and a sister live, but was considering moving on to New York as he had heard he could make more money there.

"Cuba would be better If it had another economic system, more like the United States," he said.

Secretary of State John Kerry has insisted that the Cuban Adjustment Act is not under review. But some Cuban-American members of Congress have called for the CAA to be revised, and Arizona congressman Paul Gosar has prepared a bill that would repeal the Act.

All this only fuels the flows into Tapachula that lies about a half an hour's drive from the Guatemala border and has become the epicenter of Cuban migrants beginning the Mexican leg of their journey.

Before dawn one recent morning Cubans began crossing the Suchiate River from Guatemala into Mexico on rafts made of wooden planks tied onto inner tubes. The rafts are polled across the water by locals who charge a fee for the ride. A giant mural reading "Path of the Coyote" is painted on a wall just meters from the river. A short way up the river immigration agents on the formal border bridge into Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, ignore the rafts below as they oversee legal crossings.

Photo by Martha Pskowski

From Ciudad Hidalgo, Cubans take vans or buses into the city of Tapachula.

Ciudad Hidalgo is also a common crossing point of Central American migrants. But, unlike Cubans, they avoid Immigration agents for fear of getting detained and plugged into the system that usually automatically deports them.

Mexico began a crackdown on Central American migration in July last year, apparently in response to US pressure following the surge of unaccompanied minors arriving in southern states. As a result their traditional journey through Mexico has become much more difficult and dangerous as they seek less visible routes, and the number of Central Americans detained in Mexico now surpasses the number detained in the US. Most of those picked up across the country end up in the Tapachula detention center, waiting to be bussed back to their countries of origin.

Related: Mexico Is Implementing New Measures to Curb Influx of US-Bound Central American Migrants

Cubans, meanwhile, congregate outside the detention center in Tapachula voluntarily. With over 1,500 arriving in the city in the past month the center — the largest in the country — is full. To relieve the pressure, approximately 200 Cubans were moved to the old immigration detention center on the other side of the city.

Boris Llorente, 49, of Matanzas, Cuba was a sea diver and had many friends who made the dangerous journey to Florida in homemade rafts. He started building his own raft in secret, but the authorities confiscated it before he could embark. Determined to leave the island, Llorente started building another. But before completion he heard Ecuador had stopped requiring visas for Cubans.

"My brother who lives in Italy sent me money. I bought the ticket, and I was off," he explained. That was five years ago. By October he was discouraged with his life in Ecuador, barely making more than he had in Cuba, and set off to reach the US with the flood of more recent migrants from the island.

Related: Failed Policy Still Looms Over the New 'Normal' Between the US and Cuba

As well as swapping tales about being required to pay bribes to cross Colombia, the migrants stress the complications of getting through Panama. They talk of crossing by boat or small planes from the town of Puerto Obaldia, bordering Colombia, to reach the mainland. They travel again by boat to cross from Panama to Costa Rica. Many are now having to wait up to a week to make these passages due to the high volume of migrants.

The journey through the rest of Central America by bus takes most just a few days. In all of these countries Cubans are required to hold a visa, but if detained they said they are generally released shortly after.

Mexico is the final barrier to reaching the United States, and if they receive visas it is one of the simplest to cross.

This is despite an agreement signed in 2008 in which Mexico committed to deport Cubans who entered the country illegally, and Cuba agreed to accept the return of citizens who had left the island less than two years before.  Allegedly the United States pressured Mexico to sign the agreement due to the financial burden of Cubans arriving at the US border.

But in practice Mexico rarely deports Cubans. To date this year under seven percent of Cubans detained in Mexico have been deported.

Upon detaining a Cuban national, Mexican immigration officials contact the Cuban Consulate in Mexico City to authorize the deportation. However, the Consulate in most cases does not recognize the Cuban national and Mexico is unable to deport the detainee. In this situation, Mexico is legally obligated to issue a "safe conduct" or exit visa and release the detainee within 60 days.

In the past year human rights activists in Mexico have denounced widespread extortion rings targeting Cubans in immigration centers where they were being held for months and required to pay bribes of $5,000 to obtain the exit visas. The pressure prompted a relaxation of procedures with immigration officials now issuing the visas within days.

Word travels fast amongst the closely-networked Cuban migrants and by October Cubans started turning themselves directly into Immigration agents en masse in Tapachula.

While the new friendly era of Cuba's relations with the US is invoked frequently as the impetus to migrate, President Raul Castro's visit to Mexico last Friday to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto has also stoked fears that the days of easy and safe passage through Mexico could also soon be over.

After the meeting Peña Nieto told reporters that the pair had signed an agreement to "guarantee legal, ordered and safe migration flows," though he gave no hint about what that might mean in practice.

The Cubans hanging around Tapachula's immigration detention centers checking their phones did not want to wait to find out.

One woman received a call from her husband in Hialeah, Florida, impatient for her to arrive after a year separated. The phones of others lit up with calls from relatives in Miami, Houston, Spain and Italy, ready to wire money to Tapachula. Airfare prices to the Mexican border cities of Laredo, Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana were compared. Many said they would be boarding planes as soon as they got their visas.

"Everyone who is able to leave Cuba is leaving," said 42-year-old Alexy Ribero Martínez, predicting the wave of migrants coming through Mexico would continue to intensify for as long as the route is open. "Those who can't leave now will be stuck there."

Related: Will Cuba Now Cash 55 Years' Worth of Guantanamo Rent Checks?

Follow Martha Pskowski on Twitter: @psskow