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U.S.-bound Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica camps

U.S.-bound Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica camps
Zach Dyer

Julio Alvarez’s troubles with the police in Cuba started when they
stopped him from selling sandwiches on the street.

Alvarez, a 35-year-old father from Cienfuegos, a city on the Caribbean
island’s southern coast, patted his hands together, mimicking the bread
on the fish as he described his sandwiches. He sold them to supplement
his $20-a-month salary as an English teacher to support his wife,
daughter and mother.

“You can’t live on that,” he said.

For five years the sandwich side business helped Alvarez and his family
get by, but when the police finally shut him down, he made the same
decision that thousands of other Cubans have. Instead of trying to cross
the 90-mile Florida Straits to the U.S. in a raft, he chose a circuitous
route that included a commercial flight from Cuba to Ecuador, with plans
to travel north on a 5,000-mile route through South America to Costa
Rica and on to the Texas-Mexico border.

But since leaving the communist-ruled island, Alvarez and nearly 8,000
Cubans have found themselves waylaid in temporary shelters in Costa Rica
after Nicaragua closed its border to the migrants in November. After two
months of diplomatic wrangling, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and
Mexico authorized an airlift to help the stranded Cuban migrants reach
the U.S., but getting north remains difficult.

At a gymnasium that serves as a shelter, a white bed sheet hanging over
the entrance bears a spray-painted message in Spanish: “I will not let
myself lose hope.” Inside, simple wooden bunk beds with foam mattresses
line the perimeter of the building. An American flag hangs off the top
bunk of one bed. It’s sunny outside, but people are lined up in a dark
hallway, faces aglow from smartphone screens, elbowing for a spot on the
stretch of wall with the only reliable Wi-Fi signal in the camp.

Outside, Meloni Hanzlik, a confident 13-year-old girl from Havana with
hazel eyes, sits with a group of adults, jumping in to make sure she’s
heard. “For me and my family, we left to have a better life,” she said,
“to have a good job that pays you for the work you do, for who you are.”

Hanzlik’s parents were professionals in Cuba: her father a veterinarian
and her mother an artisan. But like so many of the people in this camp,
from nurses and engineers to day laborers, they said that education and
experience simply don’t pay back home.

“Why should my daughter stay in Cuba and study?” asked Oscar Gonzalez,
38, “For what? Misery?”

Immigration from Cuba to the U.S. started trending up in 2009, according
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but that flow crested into a wave in
2015. A rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba announced in December
2014 sparked fears that the U.S. would change its “wet-foot, dry-foot”
policy, which allows Cubans to stay if they reach U.S. soil. More than
43,000 Cubans reached the U.S. during the 2015 fiscal year, a 78% jump
from the 24,278 who arrived in 2014.

That jump in migration was good business for smugglers in Costa Rica
until police dismantled an operation in November that specialized in
Cuban migrants. With no path forward, soon masses of Cuban migrants
appeared at the border demanding to cross. Costa Rica started issuing
transit visas, but as the crowds grew into the thousands Nicaragua
closed its border, leaving Costa Rica with more than 7,800 stranded
migrants living in 38 shelters across the country.

After talks broke down with Nicaragua before Christmas, Costa Rica, El
Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico agreed to a plan to fly the migrants over
Nicaragua and into El Salvador. From there, the migrants are bused from
San Salvador, through Guatemala to the Tapachula border crossing in
Mexico. The cost of the ticket — $555 — includes airfare, bus fare, exit
and entrance visas, food and health insurance. Once in Mexico, the
migrants are given 20-day transit visas to reach the U.S., but they must
do so on their own.

The first airlift Jan. 12 brought 180 migrants to the U.S. border in
Laredo. More flights out of Costa Rica are expected soon.

Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez said Wednesday in a
statement that the next flight carrying migrants would leave Costa Rica
on Feb. 4 and that there would be two flights a week in February.
Leaders met in Guatemala City to discuss the airlift.

The efforts to accommodate the migration of Cubans leaving the island
for economic and political reasons stand in sharp contrast with that of
Central American migrants fleeing chronic violence in their home countries.

This month, 121 Central American migrants in the U.S. — many adults and
children who entered the country during an increase in migration in 2014
— were detained and authorities began processing them for deportation.

“It’s surreal that there are governments negotiating the transit of
migrants,” said Juan Carlos Gomez, director of the Carlos A. Costa
Immigration and Human Rights Clinic at Florida International University.
“How is Mexico supposed to stop some and provide transit visas to
others? There’s a contradiction there.”

Gomez isn’t alone in thinking so. On Jan. 6, upon reaching an agreement
for the legal transit of Cuban migrants through the isthmus,
then-president of Guatemala, Alejandro Maldonado, railed against the
perceived double standard between the efforts to protect Cuban migrants
while Central Americans were turned away or deported.

The Cubans got the guarantee to reach the U.S. “and what does the United
States say? Bienvenidos. And the Guatemalans? They throw out! 190,000
Guatemalans in two years have been thrown out of the U.S. and Mexico,”
Maldonado told reporters.

The Obama administration has said several times that there are no plans
to change the Cuban Adjustment Act, but this latest wave has some U.S.
lawmakers, including Cuban American Republican presidential candidate
Marco Rubio, calling for an end to some of the federal benefits Cubans
receive when they reach the United States.

Regardless of any potential loss of federal benefits or immigration
preferences, Raysel Montejo, a 42-year-old veterinarian at the camp,
said that Cubans would keep trying to reach the United States.

“The only way you could make sure that Cubans don’t wake up and leave
for the United States,” he said, “is if you put up a big sign that says,
[Cuban leaders] ‘Fidel and Raul Castro are coming to the U.S.'”

Dyer is a special correspondent.

Source: U.S.-bound Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica camps – LA
Times –
www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-costa-rica-cubans-20160121-story.html

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