By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Ever since Fidel Castro turned the island nation of Cuba upside down with his communist revolution in 1959, hundreds of thousands of Cuban citizens have either successfully migrated to the United States, or died in the process. They have mostly arrived in roughly four waves in the last several decades, and the fourth wave is underway. However, the nature of this fourth wave is very different than that of its predecessors, and could have a significant impact not on interdiction efforts at sea, but rather border security protocols in South Texas.
The first two waves of Cubans fleeing Cuba occurred right after the revolution and in the decade after. Hundreds of thousands of migrants fled by boat or airlift, using “Freedom Flights” under the Nixon and Johnson administrations operated in coordination with religious and other aid organizations. The third wave happened in 1980 and was called the Mariel boatlift, initiated by the storming of the Peruvian embassy by Cubans requesting asylum and resulting in a Castro-initiated free-for-all that landed more than 125,000 Cuban immigrants—many of whom were prisoners freed by Castro amidst the chaos—in south Florida in a matter of just weeks.
The fourth wave was spurred by the collapse of the Soviet Union 1991 and ensuing riots that started erupting in Havana. In roughly 1993, Castro got fed up and announced that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could do so. Tens of thousands of balseros, or rafters, started making a beeline for south Florida once again. As a result of the mass influx, the U.S. and Cuba came to an agreement on immigration policy between the two countries, resulting in the current “wet feet, dry feet” solution. If a Cuban national is interdicted at sea, he gets repatriated. However, if he makes it to US soil, he can request asylum and will most likely get to stay.
The piece of US legislation that undergirds almost all of these waves is the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which is predicated on the fact Cuban immigrants are fleeing communist persecution and are eligible for almost automatic asylum as a result. This makes them different in the eyes of US immigration law than other migrants fleeing extreme economic hardship and drug violence, such as Haitians and Hondurans. Those migrants aren’t even considered refugees because the violence comes at the behest of criminals and not their governments—at least, not in the eyes of the United Nations.
Enter the shaky but not entirely unexpected rapprochement between President Obama and current Cuban leader Raul Castro. While full diplomatic ties have not been completely restored, that process is in the works. As a result, many Cubans fear that the Cuban Adjustment Act—and the resulting automatic asylum for Cuban immigrants—will be repealed. This is actually unlikely in the near term, as only Congress can repeal the Act, and both the House and the Senate are controlled by Republicans who are mostly in favor of the Act and maintaining the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
This detail, however, has not stopped a fifth wave of Cuban migration from starting. But this wave looks nothing like its predecessors, as the Florida Straits and Key West are not the primary destination. Cuban migrants are now headed toward Mexico and the Texas-Mexico border in record numbers.
This route is technically not new, as Cubans have been trying to get off the island and into the U.S. in any way possible, and often that path will take them through South and Central America. However, the statistics for Cubans resorting to human smuggling networks and migration routes normally reserved for Hondurans and Mexicans are staggering. Interdictions of Cubans by US immigration authorities along the southwest border have climbed from 5,316 in 2011 to 17,459 in 2014—the highest number since 2005. According to the latest figures from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), at least 27,413 Cubans have entered through the U.S.-Mexico border from Oct. 1, 2014, through Aug. 31, 2015. That accounts for more than half of the 43,159 Cubans who arrived in the U.S. during the same time period—a 77 percent increase from the same time period the previous year. According to The Miami Herald, the numbers are high enough that some human rights activists in Mexico have labeled it a “migration crisis.”
Given the “border surge” that saw approximately 90,000 women and children apprehended in South Texas during a few months’ time in the summer of 2014, these numbers could be a cause for concern among Department of Homeland Security officials trying to modify security protocols for dealing with these steadily climbing numbers. However, the manner in which Cuban migrants are currently processed still differs from other Latin American migrants. They even travel differently; most enter through Ecuador, which has no visa requirement for Cubans. If they are detained by Mexican immigration authorities, they are usually released once their nationality is disclosed. This often allows them the freedom to travel legally by whatever means they can secure. Once at the border, Cuban nationals usually turn themselves in to CBP at a port of entry because they are already familiar with the asylum request process.
While this doesn’t particularly place a burden on Border Patrol agents working between the ports, it does place a higher time burden on CBP officers who have to process these individuals and conduct credible fear interviews before releasing them to family members in the United States. There is also no indication the flow of Cuban migrants to the southwest border will slow down anytime soon. Jorge Duany, the head of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, told EFE news service that this is a “trend that’s definitely going to keep increasing,” not only across the Florida Strait but especially along the border with Mexico.