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Cuban migrants flood to US by taking advantage of lax passport rules

Cuban migrants flood to US by taking advantage of lax passport rules
Some 22,000 Cubans reached US by way of intermediary countries in the
past year, forgoing dangerous sea crossing
Associated Press in Havana
theguardian.com, Friday 10 October 2014 16.32 BST

The number of Cubans heading to the United States has soared since the
island lifted travel restrictions last year, and instead of making the
risky journey by raft across the Florida straits, most are now passing
through Mexico or flying straight to the US.

US Customs and Border Patrol figures show that more than 22,000 Cubans
arrived at the US borders with Mexico and Canada in the fiscal year that
ended last month. That was nearly double the number in 2012, the year
before restrictions were lifted.

The changes in Cuban law eliminate a costly exit visa and make it easier
for Cubans to both leave and return to the island legally. Reform of
property laws now allows Cubans to sell homes and vehicles, helping
would-be emigrants pull together the cash needed to buy airline tickets.
With greater access to cash and legal travel documents, the historic
pattern of Cuban migration is shifting from daring dangerous voyages at
sea to making the journey by air and then land.

The Cuban government is struggling to bolster a dysfunctional centrally
planned economy after decades of inefficiency and underinvestment.
Recent changes intended to encourage entrepreneurism have borne little
fruit and many people are seeking opportunities elsewhere.

While the number of Cubans trying to reach the United States by sea also
grew to nearly 4,000 people this past year, the biggest jump by far came
from people entering the US by land. And the Cubans flying to Latin
America or straight to the United States generally belong to the more
prosperous and well-connected strata of society, accelerating the drain
of the island’s highly educated.

US officials say that before the recent surge, more than 20,000 Cubans
formally migrated to the US every year using visas issued by the US
government, while several thousand more entered on tourist visas and
stayed. Adding in migrants who entered informally, US officials believe
more than 50,000 Cubans were moving to the US every year, leaving behind
their homeland of 11 million people.

Many Cubans are using an opportunity offered by Spain in 2008 when it
allowed descendants of those exiled during the Spanish civil war to
reclaim Spanish citizenship. A Spanish passport allows visa-free travel
to the US, Europe and Latin America.

The number of Cubans holding a Spanish passport tripled between 2009 and
2011, when it hit 108,000. Many of those Cubans fly to Mexico or the US
on their Spanish passports, then present their Cuban passports to US
officials.

Thousands of other travelers make their first stop in Ecuador, which
dropped a visa requirement for all tourists in 2008. The number of
Cubans heading to Ecuador hit 18,078 a year by 2012, the latest year for
which statistics are available. From there, many hopscotch north by
plane, train, boat or bus through Colombia, Central America and Mexico.

The government last year extended the length of time Cubans can be gone
without losing residency rights from one year to two. That means
migrants now can obtain US residency and still return to Cuba for
extended periods, receive government benefits and even invest money
earned in the US.

Particularly notable is the departure of young and educated people. In
the capital, Havana, it seems most every 20- or 30-something has a plan
to go sooner rather than later, mostly to the United States. Nearly
everyone has a close friend or relative who already has left for the US
in the last few years.

Dozens of Cuban migrants show up every week at the Church World Service
office in Miami seeking help. Those without relatives in the US are
resettled in other parts of the country, where they are connected with
jobs, housing and English classes.

Raimel Rosel, 31, said he left his job at a Havana center for pig
genetics and breeding when state security agents began questioning him
about extra income he earned from private consulting. He flew to Ecuador
in August and then traveled north for 30 days to the Mexican border.

“It was really tense,” he said, describing the trip as “utterly exhausting”.

Another man at the church office said “going by boat is madness”.

He and his wife and daughter all had Spanish passports, he said. After
selling their home in Matanzas province, outside the capital, for
$8,000, they flew to Mexico City and then Tijuana, where they crossed
into the US. He declined to provide his name in order to protect
relatives in Cuba from repercussions.

Cubans arriving at a US border or airport automatically receive
permission to stay in the United States under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment
Act, which allows them to apply for permanent residency after a year,
almost always successfully.

While the number of Florida-bound rafters jumped this year, the 2014
figure is generally in line with the average for the last decade. The US
coast guard says it stopped 2,059 Cuban rafters on the high seas as of
22 September, a few hundred more than the average of 1,750 interdicted
each year since 2005. Roughly 2,000 more rafters made it to dry land
this year. The figure of those stopped was higher from 2005 to 2008,
dipped dramatically for three years, then starting climbing again in
2012. Statistics for all coast guard contacts with Cuban rafters were
not available for years earlier than 2010.

Good weather may have prompted more rafters to attempt the journey this
year, said Commander Timothy Cronin, deputy chief of law enforcement for
the US coast guard district responsible for most interactions with Cuban
rafters.

“There haven’t been any major storms that have come through the area, no
hurricanes,” he said. “We’ve been blessed and in a way cursed by every
day being a good day for a mariner to take to the sea, whether for good
or for bad.”

Those who reach Florida call home to Cuba, perhaps inspiring others to
attempt the trip despite the risks.

Yennier Martinez Diaz arrived in Florida on a raft with eight other
people after 10 days at sea in August. The group of friends and
neighbors from Camaguey, on Cuba’s northern coast, built the raft with
pieces of metal, wood and a motor from an old Russian tractor.

Diaz, 32, earned about $10 a week cutting brush and sugarcane. He said
he wanted to help a brother with cancer by finding a higher-paying job
in the US.

After the motor nearly ran out of gas, the rafters drifted for days in
the open water. At one point, they hit a powerful storm and nearly drowned.

“I caution everyone not to come by sea,” he said, his face still red
from the sun.

Source: Cuban migrants flood to US by taking advantage of lax passport
rules | US news | theguardian.com –
http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/oct/10/cuba-migrants-surge-us-mexico-border-sea-travel

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