As Cubans rush through Texas, immigration policy questioned
From February to May, about 4,000 Cubans crossed over the Rio Grande
River into Texas' westernmost city. As they settle across the U.S., a
broader immigration debate has emerged over whether Cuban immigrants
should still be allowed to simply walk into the country and
automatically be able to gain legal residency after a year.
BY JEN FIFIELD
EL PASO, TEXAS
As the morning light seeps into the chapel of an immigrant shelter here
just blocks north of the U.S.-Mexico border, a man sleeps undisturbed on
a cot, wrapped in a comforter.
The chapel doesn't normally serve as a bedroom, but for months the rest
of the rooms at the Annunciation House shelter have been full. From
February to May, about 4,000 Cubans crossed over the Rio Grande River
into Texas' westernmost city. After making their way to shelters and
churches, many have been sleeping in crowded, makeshift quarters on bunk
beds, cots, couches and pews.
ABOUT 77,000 CUBANS ENTERED THE U.S. BETWEEN OCTOBER 2014 AND APRIL 2016
The number of Cubans coming to the U.S. has increased dramatically in
the last few years. And it continues to rise, with about 77,000 Cubans
entering between October 2014 and April 2016. Many are forgoing the
typical route across the Florida Straits by boat to Miami and are
traveling by foot, bus, boat and plane through Central America and
Mexico to the Southwest border.
As the Cubans have begun to put down roots across the U.S., a broader
debate has emerged over whether they should still be allowed to simply
walk into the country and automatically be able to gain legal residency
after a year, when it can take years for people fleeing other countries
to gain refugee status or citizenship.
Some members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose
parents emigrated from Cuba, have introduced bills that would end part
or all of Cubans' special immigration status or benefits. But others,
such as Ruben Garcia, director of the Annunciation House, say similar
asylum privileges should be granted to people from other countries who
are fleeing conditions that are worse than those Cubans face at home.
The debate is all the more acute in states like Texas, where Republican
Gov. Greg Abbott has been less welcoming to other immigrants. Abbott has
kept Texas National Guard troops on the border to be on the lookout for
Central Americans seeking to cross illegally into the U.S. And like more
than two dozen other governors, Abbott has said he won't accept the
resettlement of Syrian refugees in his state – a stance that federal
courts have rejected.
Abbott's office did not respond to requests for comment.
The difference between Cubans and Central Americans – who must prove
they have been persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, social
group or political opinion to be granted refugee status – is evident
here at Annunciation House.
The Cubans soon will begin to receive welfare checks from the
government. Meanwhile, Garcia said, the unauthorized Central American
immigrants they are bunking with may soon be deported. "There is no
asylum for them," he said.
The exodus from Cuba began in earnest after December 2014, when U.S.
President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they
would begin to normalize relations between the countries.
About 36,000 Cubans have come to the U.S. in the first six months of
fiscal 2016, from October to April, nearly surpassing the total for the
previous 12 months.
Cubans have had special immigration status since the Cuban Adjustment
Act of 1966. But since 1995, Cubans caught in the water on their way to
the U.S. must prove they are refugees, while those who reach U.S. soil
can stay, regardless of circumstances, under a policy dubbed "wet foot,
Cubans who made it here to El Paso say they faced a perilous, monthslong
journey through Central America – hiking through jungles, hiding from
violent guerrillas stalking their routes, and speeding in the dark on
small boats. But, they say, it was worth it.
"It's been my dream since I was born to be in a free country," Alberto
Arce Perez said. "It's the dream of all Cubans."
The freedom they seek is economic and political, Perez and other Cubans
staying in El Paso shelters said. Cuba scores among the worst in the
world for civil liberties and political rights, according to Freedom House.
In Cuba, the government controls everything, Perez said. The food is
rationed and sometimes deliveries don't come. Many people live in
extreme poverty – the average salary was about $22 a month in 2014.
The absence of freedom of speech means that if you speak out, you'll be
persecuted, said Armando Genaro Vazquez, who was an electrical
technician in Cuba, and Hector Martinez Rodriguez, who was a chauffeur,
both of whom were staying at Annunciation House.
The two left Cuba, they said, because the situation won't improve unless
the Castros are no longer in control.
But others have doubts about whether the Cubans arriving in the U.S. are
fleeing the communist island because they are being persecuted or simply
seeking a better life economically.
William LeoGrande, a government professor at American University who
specializes in Latin American policy and politics, said it's clear to
him they are coming for economic reasons, not political ones.
That's in contrast to tens of thousands of people from El Salvador,
Guatemala and Honduras, many of them unaccompanied children, who are
threatened by gang violence in their countries. That they are turned
away while Cubans are welcomed "doesn't make sense," LeoGrande said.
It makes the situation difficult for people helping immigrants, who must
provide such different services to different groups, said Melissa Lopez,
executive director of El Paso's Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services.
"It's really difficult as an immigration advocate to see two people in
somewhat similar circumstances, in terms of the danger and harm they are
exposed to over the course of their lives, and for one group to have the
easiest path to immigration status, and one the hardest," Lopez said.
IT'S REALLY DIFFICULT AS AN IMMIGRATION ADVOCATE TO SEE...FOR ONE GROUP
TO HAVE THE EASIEST PATH TO IMMIGRATION STATUS, AND ONE THE HARDEST
Melissa Lopez, El Paso Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services
Central Americans often show up at the door of the Annunciation House
starved, sick, and scared, Garcia said. The U.S. should recognize their
plight, just as it recognizes the plight of Cubans, he said.
The land path that Cubans are taking here was made possible by policy
changes in Cuba and Central America. In 2008, Ecuador began allowing
people from any nation, including Cuba, to travel into the country – a
policy that the country revoked in December. In 2012, Cuba stopped
requiring its citizens to ask the country permission to leave.
This winter, faced with growing numbers of immigrants passing through,
Nicaragua and Costa Rica shut their borders, trapping thousands of
Cubans in Costa Rica and Panama. Since then, the governments have loaded
Cubans onto planes heading north, flying thousands to Mexican cities
just south of El Paso and Houston, where they have then been bused to
So far this year, the biggest group of Cubans, about 25,000, has come
through Laredo, a southwest Texas city that many cross on their way to
Houston. The flood of Cubans has strained resources there, said Jim
Townsend, spokesman for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of
Galveston-Houston. All the shelters are full.
In El Paso, meanwhile, only about 100 Cubans were left in temporary
shelters as of a couple weeks ago. Of the 4,000 who entered the city
since February, about 3,400 immediately caught a bus or plane, and 500
others have been helped to other cities, or found a place to stay in El
Paso, said Juan Lopez, associate director of the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops' Cuban and Haitian program.
Like many of the Cubans still here, Perez and his wife, who declined to
give her name, don't have money left from their journey or family in the
U.S. who can help them.
Walking through the shelter where the couple is staying, Taylor Levy
finds herself apologizing to the Cubans she sees. They're waiting for a
ticket out of town, anxious to start their new lives, and she is the one
who will tell them when they can leave.
Levy, who works for Annunciation House, is coordinating their departures
with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The national organization
provides immediate needs to Cubans and Haitians, such as shelter and
food, through a government contract, Juan Lopez said.
Lopez finds local branches of Catholic Charities across the country with
the capacity to help the Cubans, and sends them there, mainly to
Albuquerque, N.M.; Austin, Texas; Las Vegas; Louisville, Ky.; Palm
Beach, Fla.; Phoenix; Rochester, N.Y.; and San Diego. His group has seen
about 600 Cubans in El Paso so far, and about 100 have enrolled in its
program, he said.
The Perezes are trying to scrape together money to buy a suitcase,
although they don't know yet where they'll be headed. They said they
don't care, as long as it's in the U.S.
Source: As Cubans settle across the U.S., an immigration debate has
emerged | In Cuba Today -