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Elizabeth Mesa Ramirez, who left Cuba three years ago, holds breakfast juice in Ciudad Juarez outside the Mexican restaurant where she works. She came to the border city about a month ago. She says the United States has inspired many Cubans to leave by encouraging their discontent with the communist government, 'but then they are not taking us in.'

Ivan Pierre Aguirre /The Globe and Mail

Andres Valdes Rodriguez was working as a fumigator in Havana when Cuban police detained him for failing to attend a political rally and asked him to become an informant.

Instead, Mr. Valdes Rodriguez boarded a plane last fall to Georgetown, Guyana, more than 3,000 kilometres away. There, he embarked on a four-month trek through 11 countries and 60 cities in South and Central America, crossing into Mexico on the eve of his 28th birthday.

He believed he would be quickly spirited to Mexico’s northern border and into the United States, as had so many family members before him – beneficiaries of the United States’ long-standing preferential treatment for Cubans fleeing the Communist regime. But Mexico is where Mr. Valdes Rodriguez’s journey stalled. He has spent more than a month in a church shelter in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Tex. – No. 7,708 on a list of 12,000 migrants waiting to cross into the U.S.

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He is untroubled about the wait, confident that the U.S. will eventually admit him. “The United States is the real country of freedom,” Mr. Valdes Rodriguez said. “It is worth it for me to go through all this.”

Others are less optimistic. Earlier this month, U.S. border officials shut down a bridge crossing into El Paso after hundreds of migrants, mostly Cubans, staged a protest and demanded to cross.

Customs and Border Protection officers stand guard at the Paso del Norte bridge between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Tex., as part of the security measures put in place after migrants from Cuba protested to demand faster asylum processing.

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

Much of the attention on U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policies has focused on the plight of Central Americans, who comprise the majority of those coming to claim asylum in the U.S. But, as of June, more than 16,000 Cubans have also arrived at official ports of entry along the Mexican border this year, a figure that excludes those who have crossed illegally and been apprehended.

Cubans have left in waves since the country’s 1959 revolution, seeking political asylum in the U.S. from Fidel Castro’s Communist regime, now led by his brother Raul. Starting in the 1960s, the U.S. has imposed strict sanctions against Cuba and enacted a series of policies that put Cuban immigrants on a fast track to citizenship enjoyed by no other nationality.

The current wave, however, is the largest of the Trump presidency. And it comes amid shifting political and economic currents in Cuba, where the economy is being dragged down by the woes of close ally Venezuela, and in the U.S., which has ratcheted up sanctions on the island countryeven as it tightens immigration policies. Increasingly, Cubans are being told to wait in Mexico while their asylum cases slog their way through the backlogged U.S. immigration courts. Soon they may be subject to a new Trump administration policy – temporarily blocked by a court challenge – banning migrants who pass through another country on their way to the border from applying for asylum in the U.S.

The plight of Cuban émigrés stuck in Mexico could have political ramifications for Mr. Trump. He has made tough border policies central to his re-election campaign – even as he courts Cuban-Americans in Florida, an important source of Republican support in the key swing state.

“It’s really the first time this has happened, that it’s been difficult for Cubans to find a way to immigrate to the United States,” said John Caulfield, who served as the chief of mission at the United States Interests Section in Havana during the Obama administration. “We are in new territory here.”

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A Cuban migrant crosses the Rio Bravo from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso, Tex., on June 6, hoping to turn himself in and request asylum. The current wave of Cuban migration to the United States is the largest since Donald Trump became President.

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters


How Cuban migrants reach the U.S.

ROUTES TO MEXICO FROM CUBA

U.S.

Flights from Havana

Approximate path on land

Gulf of Mexico

Havana

CUBA

MEXICO

Tapachula

Atlantic Ocean

GUATEMALA

NICARAGUA

Georgetown

PANAMA

Managua

VENEZUELA

Panama City

Medellin

GUYANA

COLOMBIA

Pacific Ocean

ECUADOR

Manaus

PERU

0

600

BRAZIL

KM

ROUTES TO U.S. FROM MEXICO

NEW MEXICO

Tapachula to Ciudad Juarez

Ciudad Juarez

Tapachula to Nuevo Laredo

TEXAS

U.S.

Nuevo Laredo

MEXICO

Torreón

Monterrey

Gulf of Mexico

San Luis Potosi

Salamanca

Lecheria

Cordoba

Mexico City

Medias Aguas

Ixtepec

0

250

KM

Tapachula

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

How Cuban migrants reach the U.S.

ROUTES TO MEXICO FROM CUBA

U.S.

Flights from Havana

Approximate path on land

Gulf of Mexico

Havana

CUBA

MEXICO

Tapachula

Atlantic Ocean

GUATEMALA

NICARAGUA

Georgetown

PANAMA

Managua

VENEZUELA

Panama City

Medellin

GUYANA

COLOMBIA

Pacific Ocean

ECUADOR

Manaus

PERU

0

600

BRAZIL

KM

ROUTES TO U.S. FROM MEXICO

NEW MEXICO

Tapachula to Ciudad Juarez

Ciudad Juarez

Tapachula to Nuevo Laredo

TEXAS

U.S.

Nuevo Laredo

MEXICO

Monterrey

Torreón

Gulf of Mexico

San Luis Potosi

Salamanca

Lecheria

Cordoba

Mexico City

Medias Aguas

Ixtepec

0

250

Tapachula

KM

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

How Cuban migrants reach the U.S.

ROUTES TO MEXICO FROM CUBA

Flights from Havana

Approximate path on land

Gulf of Mexico

Havana

CUBA

Atlantic Ocean

MEXICO

Caribbean Sea

Tapachula

GUATEMALA

Managua

HONDURAS

Georgetown

Panama City

NICARAGUA

VENEZUELA

COSTA RICA

Medellin

GUYANA

PANAMA

COLOMBIA

Pacific Ocean

ECUADOR

Manaus

PERU

0

600

BRAZIL

KM

ROUTES TO U.S. FROM MEXICO

ARIZONA

NEW MEXICO

U.S.

Tapachula to Ciudad Juarez

Ciudad Juarez

Tapachula to Nuevo Laredo

TEXAS

Nuevo Laredo

MEXICO

Gulf of

California

Monterrey

Torreón

Gulf of Mexico

San Luis Potosi

Salamanca

Lecheria

Cordoba

Pacific Ocean

Mexico City

Medias Aguas

Ixtepec

0

250

GUATEMALA

Tapachula

KM

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

The sheer number of Cubans stuck in Mexico has surprised local officials in Ciudad Juarez. The state government opened a migrant-assistance office in the city last year to handle an expected rise in the number of Mexicans deported from the U.S., along with migrant caravans from Central America. But almost 80 per cent of the migrants to arrive have been Cuban, said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the migrant-transition facility.

The city’s shelters and hotels are full. Many Cubans are working informally, opening restaurants catering to other Cubans and tourists from El Paso, filling jobs in retail stores or working on construction sites, with wages supplemented by money from family members in the U.S.

Mr. Valenzuela has been pushing to get work permits for the Cubans, hoping to make full use of the doctors and engineers arriving in droves. “This should be an opportunity for us,” he said.

For Cubans, the biggest surprise upon arrival is finding the U.S. border effectively closed. Most blame the Cuban government for the conditions that have forced them to leave. But they are also frustrated with a President who campaigns vehemently against communism while turning away those fleeing just such a regime.

“The U.S., with its own rhetoric, is telling people around the world that Cuba is a dictatorship,” said Elizabeth Mesa Ramirez, who left Cuba three years ago, working and travelling in Brazil and Chile before making the trek to the U.S. border this spring.

“It’s encouraging people to leave, encouraging this discontent. But then they are not taking us in.”

Elizabeth Mesa Ramirez, right, and Marlena Diaz Padron, both of Cuba, walk through downtown near the Mexican restaurant where they work.

Ivan Pierre Aguirre /The Globe and Mail

Until recently, Cubans enjoyed unique privileges among migrants to the U.S. As part of a 1990s-era deal to stem a mass exodus of Cubans crossing by raft to Florida, Cuba agreed to accept the return of migrants intercepted by U.S. agents on water, but those who reached U.S. soil were allowed to stay – a policy known as “wet foot, dry foot.” The latter were then eligible for a green card after just a year under the terms of a Cold War-era agreement called the Cuban Adjustment Act. The U.S. also promised to issue at least 20,000 visas to Cubans every year in an effort to create an orderly path to legal migration.

The process largely worked until 2013. That year, Cuba allowed its citizens to leave the island without first applying for government permission. The change was part of the country’s economic reforms and came amid negotiations to restore diplomatic relations with the U.S.

It prompted a new wave of migration, though Cubans skipped the dangerous journey across open water and instead flew to countries with relaxed visa restrictions, such as Guyana or Ecuador, then travelled by land to the Mexican border.

Days before leaving office in 2017, however, president Barack Obama ended the wet foot, dry foot policy under pressure from Cuba and other Latin American countries to curb the flow of Cuban migration. That closed the door on automatic acceptance to the U.S., requiring Cubans to go through the same immigration process as other asylum seekers. The number of Cubans arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border plunged, falling to about 7,000 last year.

But today a new migrant crisis is emerging. Venezuela’s collapse has hurt Cuba’s economy, which is deeply dependent on heavily subsidized Venezuelan oil. Mr. Trump has also ramped up pressure on Cuba to ends its support of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. This year alone, the Trump administration has capped remittances to Cuba, prohibited most personal travel and allowed Americans to sue foreign companies benefiting from U.S. property seized by the Cuban government after the country’s 1959 revolution.

The measures have dealt a blow to Cuba’s tourism and foreign investment, seen as important mechanisms to offset declining support from Venezuela. In May, the Cuban government announced it was rationing food staples and some toiletries. Some fear the country is heading toward a crisis reminiscent of the “Special Period,” an extended economic collapse after the fall of the Soviet Union that sparked a huge rise in migration.

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At this year's May Day parade in Havana, a Cuban soldier holds an image caricaturing Mr. Trump.

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

Cubans have long viewed migration to the U.S. as a relief valve in times of economic crisis. But Mr. Trump has continued to make it harder for Cubans to enter the country legally.

The U.S. ended visa processing at its embassy in Havana last year in response to apparent acoustic attacks on American and Canadian diplomats, causing massive delays. (Canada has also suspended visa processing in Cuba.)

The Trump administration gave out just 4,060 visas to Cubans last year, the first time it has missed its commitment to admit at least 20,000 Cubans annually. In March, the U.S. also dramatically scaled back a popular tourist visa that many Cubans used to immigrate informally to the U.S.

The tighter restrictions have not stopped Cubans from trying to come to the U.S. anyway. “I think they’ll keep coming until such time as there’s no hope for them,” said Mr. Caulfield, the former diplomat. “Until they get permanently marooned in Mexico.”

Panama and Nicaragua began offering tourist visa to Cubans in the past year, ostensibly for shopping trips. That sparked a particularly large wave of Cuban émigrés, since travelling to those countries allows migrants to bypass the Darien Gap, a notoriously dangerous stretch of remote jungle straddling the Colombia-Panama border.

“A lot of Cubans are finally seeing their opportunity. They’re selling their properties and they’re leaving,” Yaylen Cabreja said. She and her husband flew to Nicaragua in April, expecting to spend a few weeks waiting at the border before being admitted to the U.S. and sending for the one-year-old son they left behind. Instead, they are both working in a restaurant in Ciudad Juarez and disagree on whether to stay or return home.

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The sweeping changes to immigration policies have also been hard on Cubans living in the U.S., long seen as safe from deportation because of their special status, Miami immigration lawyer Tatiane Silva said.

Almost immediately after Mr. Trump took office, Ms. Silva began hearing of Cubans being arrested and sent to detention centres. “That’s something you would never hear before – Cubans being detained by immigration,” she said. “Before, Cubans had a very straight path towards getting their green card. And now they don’t, because if they’re caught, they are going to be treated like everybody else.”

In Juarez, Cubans congratulate fellow citizens minutes before they head to their U.S. asylum interviews.

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

Whether Cuban migration becomes an issue for Mr. Trump among the Republican base of Cuban-American voters depends largely on the administration’s response to the growing crisis.

Mr. Caulfield says he suspects that given enough pressure from Cuban-American communities in Florida, the U.S. may quietly work out an agreement to increase the number of immigrant visas for Cubans.

But that could require restaffing the embassy in Havana, an unlikely prospect. And will certainly require the two governments to talk to each other. “The Cubans themselves are not transparent, so it’s unclear what they’re prepared to do in terms of policies,” Mr. Caulfield said. “Even if they are prepared to negotiate, it’s not clear to me whether there is someone on the other end of the line who is going to be able to engage.”

Ms. Mesa Ramirez, meanwhile, is contemplating a different option: settling in Mexico. Her daughter in Miami has promised to visit her regularly if she decides to stay. “She says there is no reason for you to suffer the [U.S.] detention centres if you can stay in Juarez,” she said. “I want to go to the U.S. But if they don’t take my claim, that’s fine. I like Mexico well enough to stay here.”

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With a report from Luis Miranda

'I want to go to the U.S. But if they don’t take my claim, that’s fine,' Ms. Mesa Ramirez says.

Ivan Pierre Aguirre /The Globe and Mail



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