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Cubans Newly Blocked at U.S. Border Place Hopes in Trump

Cubans Newly Blocked at U.S. Border Place Hopes in Trump

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — She spent weeks hiking through the Amazon,
crossing a crocodile-filled river. She scaled border walls, escaped from
immigration detention in Panama and slept in a church. Broke, hungry and
exhausted, she found refuge with indigenous people in the jungle who
took her in and fed her for a week.

Finally, six months after fleeing Cuba on a tortuous journey to the
United States, Marleni Barbier, a dental assistant from Havana, made it
to the border with Texas — about 12 hours too late.

More than 1,000 Cuban migrants who endured monthslong treks across as
many as 10 countries to reach the United States are marooned in Mexico,
halted by the Obama administration’s decision this month to end special
immigration privileges for Cubans who make it to the American border.

The abrupt change is a profound one for Cubans, who fled their country
by the tens of thousands in the last year to take advantage of a
decades-old policy that permitted them to enter the United States.

Now, the many Cubans stranded in Mexico — and potentially thousands more
plodding up the migrant trail through the Americas — are hoping for a
reprieve: that President Trump, who was elected on a promise to build a
wall along the Mexican border, will let them through.

“I have faith that Trump will change it,” said Ms. Barbier, 44, who
arrived at the Texas border right after President Barack Obama
announced the end of special rights for Cubans. “To take away a law at
the last minute like that, it’s so unjust.”

Some of the Cubans stuck in limbo here at the Texas border arrived on
Jan. 12, the same day the Obama administration eliminated the so-called
wet foot, dry foot rule. The rule, which dated to 1995, allowed Cubans
who reached the United States to enter the country.

About 150 Cubans are parked only 50 steps from the pedestrian bridge
that connects Nuevo Laredo, in Mexico, to Laredo, Texas. Bewildered and
deflated, they are being fed by Mexican strangers, and they pray.

“Everybody was racing to get here before the inauguration on the 20th,”
said Yamila González Cabeza, 44, a teacher from Cuba, saying many
migrants thought the Trump administration would be the one to shut the
border. “The reverse was true. We did not expect this surprise on the 12th.”

The Cuban government has long abhorred the special immigration
privileges, saying the policy bleeds the island of its citizens and
lures waves of migrants into dangerous journeys by land and sea.

In striking down the rule, Mr. Obama said it was “designed for a
different era” during a period of hostilities before the United States
restored diplomatic relations with the Cuban government. By taking away
their privilege to enter, Mr. Obama said, the United States would treat
Cuban migrants “the same way we treat migrants from other countries.”

That decision could now put Mr. Trump in an awkward position: He
campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, vowing not to let migrants
slip through American borders. But he has also threatened to overturn
Mr. Obama’s executive orders and get tough on the Cuban government.

Mr. Trump has in the past said the wet foot, dry foot policy, which sent
back Cubans caught at sea but allowed those who reached land to enter,
was unfair. Still, the Cubans here hope he will show humanitarian
compassion for people who undertook arduous voyages to escape Communism
and extreme poverty.

Ms. Barbier said she had spent all of the $8,000 she made from the sale
of her house in Cuba to make it this far. “That money is gone, gone,
gone,” she said.

About 41,000 Cubans made similar trips across the Americas last year.
But because she got to the border a little too late, Ms. Barbier and
other Cubans like her may be sent back unless they can prove they
endured individual persecution, not just poverty or lack of opportunity,
on the island.

“I certainly have sympathy for them, but the policy has been changed,
and the moment they changed it, the policy was eliminated,” said
Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents Laredo. “They
didn’t say anyone in the pipeline can come in. By luck, some got in and
some did not.”

Eliannes Matos Salazar, 32, said she had been at the border station here
all day on Jan. 12, and had already been photographed and fingerprinted,
when she was forced to leave after the announcement. Yet her husband got
through and is now in Las Vegas, she said.

“They can check their surveillance camera footage, because they will see
me on it,” said Ms. Matos, who came from Guantánamo, the Cuban city
where the American naval base is.

Alberto Ramírez Balmaseda said he had turned back because border agents
told him that he would face long periods of incarceration for a chance
at presenting proof of persecution to a judge.

“What evidence do we have? That there’s been a Castro regime in power
for about 60 years?” Mr. Ramírez said. “If you are a political prisoner
in Cuba, they don’t put ‘political prisoner’ on your criminal record.
They say you stole a pig.”

Several of the Cubans interviewed said that even if they had not had
political problems before they left, they would if they were sent back.

Yenier Echevarría González, 31, who worked as a baker in the tourism
industry, said state security agents had seen a photo he posted from
Brazil on Facebook, so they showed up at his house in Cuba and demanded
that his wife sign his employment resignation papers. He had been gone
just a week and had not officially emigrated.

“First of all, if I’m deported I will probably have to serve two months
in jail,” Mr. Echevarría said. “And I will never again have a job, a car
or a house — ever.”

The Cuban government promised in the 1995 migration accords with
Washington not to retaliate against Cubans who were turned back, said
Holly Ackerman, a Duke University librarian who studies Cuban migration.
To qualify for residency in the United States, Cubans will now have to
show they would be personally persecuted back home.

“Being pinched and limited and controlled by the Cuban government isn’t
enough to satisfy the U.S. authorities any more,” she said. “Cubans who
are thinking about exiting will undergo a profound reframing of their
identity as a result of these changes.”

Silvia Pedraza, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan,
argued that while the prior policy had been flawed, it was naïve to
treat Cubans as economic immigrants.

“One has to distinguish people who leave totalitarian countries,” she
said. “For sure, the weight of the economic circumstances is very strong
in their lives, because the daily stuff of life in Cuba is so difficult
that when Cubans talk, that’s what they begin talking about. But it does
not seem right not to recognize the political nature of this.”

José Martín Carmona Flores, who runs a state agency in Mexico that
offers humanitarian assistance to migrants, said that about 200 Cubans
were currently in Nuevo Laredo, and that an additional 1,100 were
waiting in other cities until they decided what to do.

According to the International Office of Migration, about 250 Cubans
were being processed at the southern Mexico border when the announcement
was made. Scores who arrived since then are being sent back to Cuba.

More than 11,000 Cubans arrived in Mexico in just the last three months
of 2016, meaning that thousands more along the migrant route across the
Americas could still flood Mexico in the weeks to come. On Friday
morning, the Mexican government deported 91 of them who had entered
along the southern border.

“I am very worried for them,” Mr. Carmona said. “They have no plan. They
have no backup plan if their original plan fails. They are truly
vulnerable to illness, an epidemic, extortion. In many ways they are
much more vulnerable than the Central American migrants we are
accustomed to dealing with.”

Mr. Carmona’s agency was created after 78 migrants were massacred in his
state by a drug cartel in 2010. Central Americans are regularly
kidnapped and extorted, a fate Cubans have largely escaped in the past
because they did not linger long.

“I think they are going to have to reach some kind of amnesty or truce
and be returned to their country; Mexico will have to do it, because
they are here,” Mr. Carmona said. “Who is going to be the executioner?
Who is going to return these people to a place where they are likely to
be ‘sanctioned’ — to put a friendly word to it?”

Kirk Semple contributed reporting from Tijuana, Mexico.

Source: Cubans Newly Blocked at U.S. Border Place Hopes in Trump – The
New York Times –

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