For years after leaving Cuba, the mother of two tried to get her children and parents into the United States through legal channels.
Eventually, she decided she wouldn’t wait any longer: she paid someone over $40,000 to help her sneak through Mexico.
“I was like, ‘Enough is enough. I’m going to risk it all,'” said the 30-year-old, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from US authorities.
His family’s story is an example of what tens of thousands of Cuban immigrants are going through seeking to escape political and economic turmoil as they further risk their lives and arrive in the United States illegally. This is a very different reality from years ago, when Cubans enjoyed special protections that other immigrants did not.
Her children and parents embarked on a 20-day trip, beginning with a plane ride from Havana to Managua, Nicaragua. From there they took buses, vans and taxis through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, until they arrived at the US-Mexico border.
“I saw that other people were crossing the border and they were happy, and I, who had done things legally, was still waiting for my children,” the woman said.
CUBA AND NICARAGUA
US border officials encountered Cubans nearly 32,400 times in March, figures released Monday showed. This was roughly double the number in February and five times the number in October.
The increase coincided with Nicaragua’s decision from November to no longer require visas for Cubans to promote tourism after other countries, such as Panama and the Dominican Republic, began making them compulsory.
After flying to Nicaragua, Cubans travel overland to remote stretches of the U.S. border with Mexico — primarily at Yuma, Arizona, and Del Rio, Texas — and usually surrender to border patrol.
The Biden administration has relied on other governments to do more to stop migrants reaching the United States, most recently during a visit this week to Panama by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. The actions of Nicaragua, an American adversary, complicate this effort.
Cuban and US officials will meet in Washington on Thursday for immigration talks – the first in four years.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained Cubans more than 79,800 times from October through March, more than double all of 2021 and five times more than all of 2020. Overall, the Border Patrol stopped migrants of all nationalities more than 209,000 times in March, the highest monthly mark in 22 years.
Cubans who cross the U.S. border illegally face little risk of deportation or deportation under a public health law that has been used to deny asylum to thousands of migrants of other nationalities on the grounds of slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Barely 500 Cubans arrested in March, or about 2%, were subject to the authority of Title 42, named after a public health law. The Biden administration plans to end Title 42 authority on May 23.
Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, and other experts believe the number of Cubans leaving could exceed other mass migrations from the island, including the boat lift Mariel from 1980, when more than 124,700 Cubans came to the United States.
“There are several intertwined factors that produced a perfect storm for the escalation of the Cuban exodus,” Duany said.
On the one hand, Cuba is experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades due to the COVID-19 pandemic and tougher US sanctions.
The massive street protests of July 11, 2021 and the government response also played a role. Non-governmental organizations reported more than 1,400 arrests and 500 people sentenced to up to 30 years in prison for vandalism or sedition.
Havana did not specify how many Cubans left and accused the United States of manipulating the situation and offering benefits that encourage departure.
“What hurts? That there are young people who find that their plans for the future cannot develop in the country and have to emigrate,” Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said earlier this month. there are people who want to prove themselves in another world, who want to show that they don’t break with their country, that their aspiration is also to improve a little and come back later.”
THE CUBAN FAMILY TIRED OF WAITING
The 30-year-old woman who tried to bring her family to the United States through legal channels arrived in Florida on a raft in 2016. Under the ‘wet feet, dry feet’ policy, Cubans could stay they arrived on American territory. , but they were returned if apprehended at sea.
Former President Barack Obama ended this policy in 2017 and she applied for immigration for her children the following year.
Every month, she sent her family $500 for medicine and food, as well as boxes of clothes and other items, she said from her home in Tampa, Florida.
Eventually, she decided to pay the smugglers $11,000 for each parent – her two children, ages 8 and 10, as well as her mother and father.
Her parents sold everything, including their house and furniture, before embarking on the adventure with the two children, the single mother explained.
In Managua, they met 200 other migrants – Cubans, Haitians, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans – at a hotel.
“On the same day, they start a caravan by car, truck or any type of vehicle. In one night they got into more than 10 different cars,” the woman said.
After 20 days, they arrived in Mexicali, Mexico, crossed the Colorado River at night, and surrendered to Border Patrol agents in Yuma, Arizona.
They were separated. The grandparents, aged 45 and 62, were released in two days; their grandchildren were held for 11 days, the woman said.
THE CUBAN MAN WHO FEARED FOR HIS LIFE
Other Cubans say they left because they felt persecuted.
Ariel, 24, worked doing blood tests in a lab at a hospital in Cienfuegos, on the southern coast of Cuba. During the pandemic, he led a protest demanding masks, gowns and sanitizers and criticized the government on Facebook for the lack of medical supplies.
He told the AP in a phone interview that he decided to leave in November after receiving threats and being beaten. He asked that only his middle name be used because his mother and 14-year-old sister in Cuba could face reprisals.
His whole trip “was a nightmare,” Ariel recalled, but he said he was “willing to do whatever it took” to leave Cuba.
He traveled to Mexicali, with the help of an aunt in Florida, and paid a smuggler $300 to take him across the Colorado River.
He joined about 100 migrants, including 90 Cubans, who boarded a truck at midnight, he said.
The river was calm, but deep. The water covered her waist. He helped a Cuban mother by carrying her child on his shoulders.
The smuggler directed them to a place where Border Patrol agents would pick them up.
They waited two days in a migrant camp with 1,000 other people, eating bread and canned food. Border Patrol agents picked them up in groups of 12 and took them to a center in Yuma which Ariel said “looked like a prison”.
After his release, he called his aunt to let her know he was ready to fly to St. Petersburg, Florida.
LIVE IN THE UNITED STATES
Many Cubans who crossed illegally say they now feel like they are in limbo.
“The most difficult situation is going to be here, not when crossing (the border),” said Dr. Raúl González, a Cuban-American who owns a clinic that helps new arrivals fill out their paperwork to receive assistance during some months. “They’re like stuck here.”
Obtaining a work permit can take some time for asylum seekers.
At Gonzalez’s clinic, Cubans lined up to get one of the 20 appointments available each day.
“It’s sad what they’re going through,” the doctor said. “A lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t give me food stamps, I’d rather they let me work.'”
AP journalist Andrea Rodríguez contributed to this report from Havana.