Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Cubans fear new diplomatic relations with US could change special rights as immigrants

Cubans fear new diplomatic relations with US could change special rights
as immigrants

MIAMI, Florida – One result of the recent warming of relations between
Cuba and the United States was a surge in "boat people" headed to U.S.
shores. Following the recent announcement of historic talks between the
two nations, many Cubans are concerned that the revised Cuban Adjustment
Act and its "wet-foot, dry-foot policy," which grants Cubans who reach
U.S. soil automatic political asylum, will soon end.

According to Cuban immigrant Yuniesky Alcolea García, who recently made
the journey by sea to Florida, the announcement of talks caused panic on
the island.

"From my town only a few people had left before," Alcolea García told
The Tico Times. "But a group of about 20 people left in January, and
while I was building my boat, I knew at least three other groups that
were building. The town became a vacuum, because the people leaving have
specialized skills."

The perception that the wet-foot, dry-foot policy would instantly change
as talks proceeded early this year turned out to be misleading. Any
changes to the Cuban Adjustment Act – like the U.S. economic embargo of
the island – require action by the U.S. Congress, a slow process.

According to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, the policy
would remain in place for now, NBC reported, although he added, "Our
borders should not be open to illegal migration."

The boost in the number of Cuban refugees after the talks began added to
an already growing number of migrant interdictions reported by the U.S.
Coast Guard in the past few years, which jumped from 985 in 2011 to
2,111 in 2014.

In Little Havana, the Cuban district of Miami, Cuban-born Erik Otero, a
former cigar-rolling champion at the age of 11, said people are afraid
they will become "trapped" in the "open-air prison" of an island.

"Now that Cuba is off the terrorist list, it won't take long for the
political asylum option to be removed too," he said.

Just talking about the new U.S.-Cuba relations angers Otero.

"It's very difficult to get a phone call from someone who is leaving on
a boat, and afterwards you never hear from them again. We hear the
stories of people who stayed and the stories of people who came here,
but who's speaking on behalf of the ones who never made it?"

Sent back to Cuba

The wet-foot, dry-foot policy was negotiated in 1995 by the Clinton
administration after an increase in the number of boat refugees. The
policy states that every Cuban intercepted at open sea by the Coast
Guard will be sent back to Cuba without further repercussions, but every
Cuban that reaches U.S. soil – having "dry feet" – will be accepted as a
seeker of political asylum. The idea of the policy is to discourage
boats and encourage Cubans to apply for the 20,000 yearly visas issued
by the U.S. government.

The result, however, is a cat-and-mouse game between the Coast Guard and
Cuban rafters that has been ongoing for years.

Recent arrival Raidel Simón Grencibia used old car parts to build a boat
with his friend. They barely made it: Just before reaching Florida, a
wave capsized the boat forcing Grencibia to swim for three hours before
reaching shore. It was the third time he left the island by boat; the
other two times the Coast Guard caught him, which he said led to a
public shaming in Cuba.

"After that you have difficulty finding a job," Grencibia said.
"Everyone with a good job belongs to the [Communist] party, so they
won't take you in anymore. I was sick of our system, waiting an entire
day in line for free health care, and when it is your turn the doctor
tells you his office hours are over."

Alcolea García also said he was publicly shamed after an earlier attempt
to cross: "It is marked in your document that you tried to leave. During
job interviews they will say they do not trust you because you might
leave Cuba any day."

The Cubans we interviewed in Florida said they not only worry about a
change to the political asylum policy, but also the possibility that
Cuban immigrants could be more easily deported.

Sympathy from many locals

The Cuban rafters normally arrive in the Florida Keys, mostly at night
to avoid U.S. authorities. Kayak guide Randy Marrow never actually saw
Cubans arriving, but he has seen the abandoned boats often enough,
especially on the Marquesas, an island group some 20 miles west of Key West.

"The people here sympathize a lot with the Cubans coming over. Many
refugees end up staying in the Keys, so everybody here has a friend who
had to go through the same thing," Morrow said after finishing a day of
kayaking through the Keys. He said local fishermen often help Cubans
when they see them on the water by giving them food and medical
supplies. The fishermen help check if makeshift rafts are strong enough
to make it to the Keys, and they usually they don't warn the Coast
Guard, Morrow said.

"Before, the Coast Guard would have one slow cutter to protect the
border. But with 9/11, a lot changed," Morrow said. "Suddenly Homeland
Security had way more money to spend. Now they move around in speedboats
patrolling the area."

Morrow learned from a friend who worked with the Coast Guard that
smugglers charge up to $10,000 a person. Only Cubans who can afford to
pay are delivered by speedboat.

"The Florida Keys have a long history of smuggling. In the 1940s it
would be rum, and later came the drugs – cocaine, marijuana. Nowadays
it's more Cubans that are hidden in the boats," he said.

Boat season

"When I started here 21 years ago, we would work with a lot of rafters,"
Óscar Rivera, from the Church World Service Resettlement Office, said.
He saw the groups of refugees changing over time.

"After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, we saw a lot of Haitians coming,
which was a completely different thing. They would be very sick and
weak," he said.

This time of year is his group sees more rafters from Cuba coming,
because the water is warmer.

"It really depends on how many Coast Guard [patrols] are out there. It
is hard for me to say that there is indeed an increase, because I see
only the rafters who made it. But already now, halfway through the year,
we have seen a few hundred coming in. I would say we are some 40 percent
ahead," he added.

More and more Cubans also are opting for a land route through Central
America, where more than 17,400 Cubans crossed last year, according to
the Houston Chronicle. One option is to take a flight to Ecuador, where
Cubans don't need visas, and travel north. It is a dangerous route with
gangs that take advantage of immigrants and an infamous train in Mexico
called "The Beast." But it is sometimes preferable to the shark-infested
waters between Cuba and Florida.

Cece Roycraft, who runs a diving company in Key West, said that times
have changed. She remembers the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when thousands
of Cubans emigrated from Cuba's Mariel Harbor. When they arrived in the
U.S., many slept on the streets all over town.

"We had our diving boat, and people would offer big money for us to
bring relatives or friends here," Roycraft said. "We never did it,
because I couldn't afford to lose my boat to the Coast Guard. But I know
many people who did."

Those times are over, she said, and most people take the route through
Central America. But boats still regularly arrive with people like
Grencibia and García, who hope for a better life in the United States.
García said that he couldn't wait to start working so he could finally
afford the small luxuries he lacked in Cuba. When all is well, he said,
he hopes to bring his wife and child, who are still in Cuba.

Source: Cubans fear new diplomatic relations with US could change
special rights as immigrants -The Tico Times -

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