Waves of Cubans are crossing into Texas
By Lomi KrielMay 28, 2016 Updated: May 28, 2016 11:05pm
Cuba to Houston with a flight to Ecuador. From there, he traveled by
bus, boat and foot through Colombia into Panama, including a treacherous
trek through a jungle, before being airlifted to Juarez.
Rodolfo Peña trudged through the muggy Panamanian jungle, full of deadly
jaguars, insects and plants. He tried not to dwell on the murderous
Colombian guerrillas who hide out here, too, and concentrated on making
it to Houston.
Lithe and athletic, the 29-year-old was better equipped for this
dangerous trek last month through 100 miles of near impenetrable forest,
known as the Darién Gap, than many of the roughly 80 Cubans in his group.
"You put a price on your life and that price is way too low," Peña said.
"The jungle has everything."
Like Peña, more than 26,450 Cubans have crossed the Texas border since
October. Roughly 29,000 arrived in fiscal year 2015, 80 percent more
than the year before and quadruple that of a decade ago. The pace of
these northbound migrants has overwhelmed not just resettlement agencies
here but also governments across Latin America. Some countries,
including Panama and Nicaragua, have shut their borders to Cubans,
prompting a refugee crisis that shows no signs of abating.
"We don't have the capacity to serve them all," said Wafa Abdin, vice
president of immigration and refugee services at Catholic Charities of
the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
The organization has helped more Cubans in the eight months since
October, nearly 1,500, than it did for the 12-month period between
October 2014 and September 2015. It's more than double that was seen in
the same timespan the year before that, and other refugee agencies in
the area report a similar uptick.
Unlike much of the last century, the perilous currents of the Florida
Straits are no longer the forefront of Cuban migration. Instead, most
Cubans risk this harrowing journey from Ecuador to Colombia and up
through the Panamanian jungle to the Texas border. From there, many make
their way to Houston rather than Miami. The influx began seizing
national attention in 2014.
The rush prompted Nicaragua, a close ally of Havana, to close its
borders late last year, creating a bottleneck in Costa Rica. In January,
that country began airlifting as many as 6,000 Cubans to El Salvador and
busing them to Mexico before shutting its front, too.
The crisis simply moved south. In early May, the Panamanian government
similarly banned Cubans as it began daily flights bringing about 4,000
migrants to Juarez, from where they are rushing en masse into
neighboring El Paso. The traffic jam has since moved to Colombia, which
hasn't yet announced what it might do.
Much has changed since President Barack Obama restored diplomatic ties
with Cuba in December 2014: An American flag now flies over Havana for
the first time in 54 years and commercial flights are expected to resume
this summer. Last week, Cuba said it would legalize small and
medium-sized private businesses - once unthinkable in one of the world's
last few communist strongholds, which regularly cracked down on
enterprises that competed with Cuba's state monopolies.
But what hasn't changed is the desperation of Cubans to leave the island
despite promises that their lives will improve alongside better
relations with Washington. Driving them is their unique immigration
benefit that makes them the only nationality to be almost automatically
admitted into the United States and receive legal residency after a year.
Resettlement agencies from Houston to El Paso say they have remained in
the dark about the newest wave of Cubans. Most refugees are screened and
admitted through the United Nations and various U.S. government
agencies, including the State Department and Department of Homeland
Security, and can take years to arrive at a destination, giving agencies
time to prepare and allot money. Cubans, on the other hand, simply cross
the border but are nonetheless immediately eligible for the same welfare
and benefits as other refugees. It has put agencies in a terrible bind.
"We have been using whatever resources we can in order to take care of
immediate needs, and there's just not enough," Abdin said. "The numbers
Cubans say they're driven to come now because they worry about an
increased push to repeal the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives them
expedited path to citizenship. Intended to protect dissidents in the
Cold War, critics say most Cubans now come chiefly for economic reasons
and that it should be discontinued.
Indeed, Cubans say they still struggle to survive in a country where
average monthly salaries remain as low as $24 and perhaps most pressing:
They see no significant change imminent until Fidel and Raul Castro die.
For now, they say they'll keep betting on this path, which for many
means saving for years and traveling across Central and South America
for as long as 24 months and enduring numerous horrors.
For Peña, his exodus from Cuba began "the day I was born," he said,
describing a lifelong dream to come to America. The plan, however,
seemed attainable only once Cuba lifted travel restrictions for its
citizens in 2013, allowing them to fly elsewhere if they obtain a visa
for that country.
But many nations are reluctant to grant Cubans visas because of the
widely realized fear that they won't return to the island. Since Ecuador
in 2008 eliminated visas for all tourists, the throng of Cubans arriving
at the Texas-Mexico border has skyrocketed.
The Andean country rescinded that benefit late last year to stem Cuban
migration but tens of thousands of Cubans remain there or in Venezuela,
whose government has a close relationship with Havana.
As a carpenter with his own small business, Peña earned a relatively
good salary for the island, about $120 a month. But with a 5-year-old
son living with his mother in the poverty-stricken interior and dozens
of friends who had succeeded on the journey in Ecuador and the U.S.,
Peña decided he too would make the trek north. He saved for a year to
buy the $850 plane ticket and have a few hundred to spare before
boarding his flight in July 2015.
At first, Peña thought he would stay in Ecuador, where roughly 41,000
Cubans entered on commercial flights in 2014, up 70 percent from the
year before. He was living with friends, working construction jobs and
making five times as much as in Havana.
"My son could finally have toys," he said.
But when he saw he wouldn't be able to get a work visa, Peña decided to
go north, knowing he could get a green card in the U.S. He took a
five-hour taxi ride to Ipiales, a Colombian border city, an eight-hour
bus ride to Cali, another eight-hour bus ride to Medellin and finally a
six-hour bus ride to Turbo, a gritty town on the southeastern end of
Panama's Darién Gap on Colombia's last stretch of northern paved road.
This route has become infamous not only among Cuban migrants but also
Colombians themselves who have turned it into a lucrative enterprise.
"Cubans are walking money," Peña said, describing how he was harassed at
every stop by criminals knowing the migrants carry cash. Some Cubans
have recounted being beaten, and women have reported brutal rapes.
The worst and most dangerous part of his journey, however, was yet to
come: A three-hour boat trip in darkness to elude authorities to
Colombia's last frontier of Capurgana and another boat ride to Panama's
Puerto Obaldia. Then the dreaded trek through the Darién jungle.
It is here, in this desolate outpost off the Caribbean, home to
indigenous tribes, drug traffickers and guerrillas, where many Cubans
are stuck. Some run out of money and can't afford to pay a guide to lead
them through the jungle. Others are weak from the trip and can't carry on.
"It's not worth the risk," said Lorena Justiz, a 26-year-old Cuban who
arrived in Houston this month via this route.
Once through the ocean odyssey, migrants walk for 12 hours at a time
through the jungle, often without food and drinking water. They rely on
crabs and rivers for sustenance. Danger is everywhere, from
dengue-carrying mosquitoes to poisonous plants and tumbling ravines.
When Peña finally made it to Panama City in mid-April, he was exhausted
and nearly out of money. By that time the Panamanian government had
already arranged for migrants to stay in makeshift camps near Costa
Rica's border, so he was flown up there where he waited for weeks until
Panama decided to airlift the Cubans to Juarez at a cost of some $800
each. Several hundred migrants who didn't have that are still stuck there.
Arriving in the border city two weeks ago, Peña crossed into El Paso. At
the city's bus station, he stood, distressed. He didn't have money for
the trip to Houston. It's a dilemma faith and community leaders in El
Paso have been struggling with as Cuban migrants overwhelmed their city.
"It has been very difficult, and at first our only information was
coming from the refugees themselves," said Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the
El Paso Catholic Diocese. "These people were totally lost on the streets
of El Paso and taken advantage of."
Though many were on their way to family and friends mostly in Houston
and Miami, at least 15 percent had nowhere to go.
El Paso's faith community rallied. Cuban migrants slept in church pews
and received donations and help to arrive at their final destinations.
"Four thousand refugees is overwhelming if you don't prepare for it,"
said Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, an
immigrant advocacy group in El Paso. "But it's an overwhelming number
only if you don't get basic advance fundamental planning and notice.
Washington could have facilitated this immensely."
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the airlifts
were coordinated between Panama and Mexico. A State Department official
similarly said the United States was not involved.
"We understand regional governments are working to find solutions to the
ongoing Cuban migration challenge," the agency said in a statement. "We
remain concerned for the safety of all migrants throughout the region."
The ripple effect in Houston has been immense.
Abdin, from the region's Catholic Charities, said about a dozen Cubans
landed on their doorstep nearly each day this month.
"These are not numbers we have proposed we can serve," Abdin said.
"Refugees, ones that go through the system, they are accounted for, we
prepare their apartments before they come. What happens with the Cubans
is that they come and that day they're homeless. They need a place to
stay, and the city does not have enough capacity in terms of shelters."
Last year, Cubans made up more than a third of all refugees settled in
Texas, more than 5,110. In all, the federal and state government spent
more than $255 million on services for refugees in Texas last year.
Some have called to end the Cuban Adjustment Act, arguing that it draws
migrants here at increasing harm to themselves and is unfair to other
immigrants fleeing persecution. This week, U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a
Democrat from El Paso, joined a small but growing chorus of voices
including Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, saying that it should be
Jorge Piñon, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Energy Program
at the University of Texas at Austin, said as long as the Castro
brothers are in control, the island's policies will not change
significantly, and migrants will keep coming while the Cuban Adjustment
In Houston, Peña has signed up for job training and English classes at
the YMCA of Greater Houston, which so far in 2016 resettled more than
900 Cuban migrants. He is looking for work.
"Once you leave Cuba you feel the change," he said. "You can say to
yourself, 'I'm going to work hard for two months, and I'm going to buy
this,' and you can."
Reporter, Houston Chronicle
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