The world is in the midst of the largest displacement of human beings since World War II. The images of the people leaving their country in makeshift rafts are the images of Syrians.
Not too long ago, it was Cubans who were braving the ocean.
In 2013, only 359 Cubans arrived in the U.S. by sea. But that doesn’t mean they stopped coming.
The shortest route for Cubans migrating to the U.S. is still by sea, entering through Miami. It’s dangerous, even deadly.
They were the worst 330 miles Jorge Malledo ever traveled. He started that journey 10 years ago. So, Malledo says, earlier this year when his son decided to leave Cuba, the first step was to fly him to Ecuador, where there are no visa requirements.
“He was in Ecuador for two or three weeks. Then he went through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and finally the United States,” he says in Spanish. “It’s quite a trek, but it’s currently the only chance if you want to avoid the ocean.”
It took months for Malledo’s son to arrive in Texas. He’s far from alone. Thousands of Cubans are making the long journey through air, instead of the short one by sea.
In 2013, 40,000 Cubans entered the U.S. by land – many by way of Ecuador.
Amanda Posson is with Refugee Services of Texas, one of the country’s largest refugee resettlement agencies. She says numbers like these were unheard of in the last decade, but three things have contributed to the large influx.
First, in 2013, Cuban President Raul Castro made it easier for Cubans to leave the country. They no longer need an exit permit. Then last year President Obama launched a policy to ease tense relations with Cuba, dating back to the Cold War. Finally, many Cubans began to get nervous about their refugee status.
“That they will no longer have special privileges that basically entitle Cubans to be treated as refugees upon arrival to the United States and thus are choosing to migrate immediately,” Posson says.
Under immigration rules dating back to the 1960s, emigres from Cuba are the only foreign nationals entitled to a work permit and a Social Security number upon arrival in the U.S., no questions asked. They can also receive financial assistance for housing and job training.
Posson says service providers like Refugee Services of Texas want changes.
“What we want to advocate is that the Cuban parolees are not given dollars that are earmarked for refugees,” she says. “The refugee crisis globally is at a peak and funding to assist these groups is not necessarily increasing. So, instead of using refugee dollars for individuals that may not meet the definition of a refugee, we want to make sure that those dollars are allocated to groups that meet the definition.”
In the current climate, where changes in immigration policy could come quickly, the number of Cubans arriving in South Texas continues to rise.
On a recent trip to the border, I saw immigration authorities struggling to keep up with processing the large contingent of Cuban arrivals. An official said even access to the bathroom was closed, because while they were processing people from Cuba, they hold them in makeshift cells. Their numbers were so large they had to close an entire section of the building.
A few minutes after his release, a Cuban emigre named Angel Hernandez Rodriguez told me he had heard changes in policy are imminent. A month ago, he decided to fly 1,600 miles to Ecuador and then travel 2,900 miles by land to the U.S.
“Here we are,” he says in Spanish, “to start a new life. Because no matter what happens – it will always be a better life than the one I had in Cuba.”