Cuban migrants arrive in the United States in record numbers, on foot, not by boat

Cuban migrants are arriving in the United States in the largest numbers for four decades, with about 150,000 expected to arrive this yea...

Cuban migrants are arriving in the United States in the largest numbers for four decades, with about 150,000 expected to arrive this year, senior US officials say, as the economic and political situation on the island grows increasingly desperate.

For decades, Cubans trying to flee repression, food insecurity and economic devastation have boarded rickety boats, risking their lives to reach American shores.

Now they are arriving in record numbers, but this time on foot, their flight aided by Nicaragua, which has scrapped visa requirements at the end of last year for Cubans, giving them a foothold in Central America to travel overland through Mexico to the United States. US officials have accused Nicaragua’s authoritarian President Daniel Ortega of adopting the policy aimed at pressuring the US to give up sanctions against his country.

The rise in the number of Cubans trying to cross the southern border is just part of the migrants who have sometimes overwhelmed border officials as undocumented crossings continue to increase under the Biden administration. March set a record for the number of people caught crossing illegally in a single month in two decades: 221,303.

Since October — the start of the federal government’s 2022 fiscal year — nearly 79,000 Cubans have arrived at the U.S. southern border, more than in the previous two years combined, Customs and Protection figures show. borders. In March, more than 32,000 Cubans arrived at the border, most of them flying first to Nicaragua and then traveling overland to the United States, according to a senior State Department official, who s spoke on condition of anonymity due to ongoing dialogue with the Cuban government. .

The official said visa-free travel to Nicaragua encouraged migrants to spend their savings to pay smugglers for the trip, and added that some were being trafficked by criminal groups.

The numbers are the highest since Mariel boat lift in 1980, when 125,000 Cubans emigrated in the United States after the island nation opened its seaports to American ships to evacuate anyone who wanted to leave.

Public discontent in Cuba has been simmering since mass protests erupted across the country last summer over rising inflation, chronic food and medicine shortages and ongoing blackouts. Under the Obama administration, the United States significantly eased restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, but they were resurrected under former President Donald J. Trump, dealing a major blow to the economy.

The protests took the communist government by surprise and it responded by imposing one of the biggest crackdowns in decades. More than 700 Cubans have been charged for participating in protestsincluding some teenagers sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Deteriorating political and economic conditions are fueling the growing exodus.

The Nicaraguan government has dropped its visa requirement for Cuba in November, opening up an overland route for reluctant migrants to embark on the perilous sea journey to US shores. Since then, the number of flights to Managua from Havana has exploded.

“I think we see governments trying to weaponize migration because they know it causes political disruption in receiving countries,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a research institute in Washington.

Mr. Selee and other analysts said Nicaragua was likely using Cuban migrants to pressure the United States to lift sanctions on Mr. Ortega and his entourage. The movement has been compared to Belarus drops visa requirements for Iraqis last year to facilitate their entry into the European Union, in retaliation for sanctions the bloc imposed on Belarus over its disputed election.

“They’re not fools,” Mr Selee said. “The government of Managua knew this would force the United States to come to the negotiating table at some point.” Still, it’s unclear whether the looser migration rules would lead to changes in US policy.

The Nicaraguan government did not respond to questions sent by The Times. The Cuban government did not respond to requests for comment.

Many Cubans are desperate to leave, even if it means going into debt to undertake a perilous journey. Cubans say they are selling everything they have – homes, clothes and furniture – and taking out high-interest loans to raise the thousands of dollars they need to get to the United States, even though the average salary on the island is about 46 dollars a month.

Zenen Hernández, 35, was one of 414 Cubans who crossed the Rio Grande into the United States on April 5, out of a total of 1,488 undocumented migrants who crossed this section of the Texas border (about 245 miles ) That day.

“Food and medicine are scarce,” Mr. Hernández said, describing conditions in Cuba. “It’s just poverty.”

The Cuban government blames the decades-long U.S. embargo on the nation for its economic hardship.

The economy there was dismal before the pandemic hit, but Mr. Hernández got away with it, selling bread and chips. By the summer of 2020, the situation had become untenable. When Nicaragua opened its borders to Cubans, it decided it was time to leave.

“I had to sell my house,” he says.

The cost was high: $16,000 for the flight to Nicaragua and the ensuing 1,800-mile trek to reach the United States – often on foot – through the jungles, mountains and rivers of Central America and from Mexico. Along the way, migrants are regularly threatened and extorted by the police and preyed upon by criminal organizations who kidnap and beat them for ransom.

When Mr. Hernández was asked to describe his trip, he choked on recalling the miserable trip.

“I have no words,” he said. “They rob you – the police, the smugglers. They rob you.

Pent-up demand for legal crossings is another factor driving up migration. In 2017, the Trump administration cut staff at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba after a series of unexplained health issues known as “Havana Syndromeaffected American personnel there.

The withdrawal forced Cubans to apply for visas at the US embassy in Guyana, a trip too expensive for many. The move also prevented the United States from meeting its commitment to provide 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans each year, part of a 1994 agreement between the countries aimed at providing a legal pathway and discouraging illegal migration. .

This week, the US Embassy in Havana will hold the first interviews for immigrant visa applicants since 2017, one of the senior US officials said.

The first high-level talks between Cuba and the United States since 2018 took place in late April, focused on restoring regular migration channels. The Cuban government has asked the United States to honor the agreement to issue 20,000 immigrant visas a year; the US government has requested that Havana begin accepting Cuban deportees who arrived illegally.

The US official said the two sides would likely meet again in six months.

“If the talks are successful, they will revert to a formula that worked before, offering Cubans a real and workable legal route to come to the United States in return for deporting those who do not use the legal route,” he said. Mr. Selee, from the Migration Policy Institute. “Migration is one of the few points of cooperation between countries that has really worked.”

For decades, Cubans who emigrated to the United States enjoyed preferential treatment. Those captured at sea were turned away, but those who made it to American soil were allowed to remain, under a policy commonly referred to as “wet feet, dry feet.” President Obama ended the policy in 2017.

The bilateral talks preceded the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June, where countries will try to agree on a regional framework for migration and strengthen financial support for Latin American countries with large migrant populations. Colombia last year received $800 million in loans from multilateral lenders, including the World Bank, to support the 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants it hosts, the kind of support the summit will seek to extend to all the region.

Although the Biden administration has maintained that only democratic governments will be invited to the summit, Cuba has been invited to the previous two, in 2015 and 2018, and is hoping for an invitation this year.

But US officials said that had not yet been decided, angering the Cuban government.

“The United States is once again resorting to all kinds of resources and lies to affirm the right acquired by Cuba and its people to be present at these summits on an equal footing with the rest of the countries of the region” , said the Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodriguez, tweeted April 25. It is “something shameful”.

Bryan Avelar and Frances Robles contributed report.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Cuban migrants arrive in the United States in record numbers, on foot, not by boat
Cuban migrants arrive in the United States in record numbers, on foot, not by boat
Newsrust - US Top News
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