Thousands of Cubans fled after the new US asylum policy Migration news

Havana, Cuba – Patri, 24, hides $1,100 in a storage ottoman in his bedroom in the Cuban capital, Havana. “It doesn’t look like much, but I’ve kept it for five years,” said the manicurist and makeup artist, eyeing her thin stack of bills.

Patri asked that her last name be omitted for her safety because privately exchanging Cuban pesos for dollars is technically illegal. In order not to draw attention to herself, Patri only informed her father and grandmother about her plans to leave Havana for America this year.

But she postponed her trip, at least for now, due to the change in American immigration policy.

On January 5, Patri was ready to book a flight to Nicaragua, the closest visa-free country for Cubans, and begin a two-week journey to the Mexican border with Texas.

Several friends who had arrived in the US the same way promised to pool their money and lend her $8,000 for numerous hostels, bus tickets and bribes. The dollars in her ottoman will serve as a cash safety net in case withdrawals from the bank prove difficult in Central America.

Then a new law threw her plans out the window.

In January, US President Joe Biden’s administration issued an executive order limiting asylum claims along the country’s southern border. Instead, asylum seekers from four countries — Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Haiti — must now apply for a “parole process” that allows up to 30,000 refugees and migrants to arrive in the U.S. per month.

But the qualifications are high. Successful applicants must pass background checks, possess a valid passport, be able to purchase airline tickets, and demonstrate that they have a sponsor with legal status in the US who can financially support them.

Patri has no sponsors. If she goes ahead with her original plan, she will be turned away at the Texas border and sent back to Mexico under Title 42, the pandemic-era law also known as the “Stay in Mexico” rule. Title 42 has drawn sharp criticism from organizations such as the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, which say the policy undermines the legal right to asylum in the US.

Before the executive order took effect, hundreds of thousands of Cubans like Patri fled their homeland seeking opportunity in the US. U.S. Customs and Border Protection there estimates that 306,612 Cubans — well over two percent of the island’s entire population — crossed the country’s southern border in 2022, driven primarily by Cuba’s economic collapse.

Many have applied for asylum, but due to immigration backlogs in the US, their cases can sometimes take years to be processed. Previously, this delay could work in favor of asylum seekers. After one year in the US, Cubans can obtain a green card regardless of their legal status through the Cuban Adjustment Act, a pathway to permanent residency.

“Most of my friends left this year and my boyfriend arrived in Miami just a few days ago. I’m the only one left,” Patri said.

Meanwhile, the cost of living in Cuba remains high, and Patra’s home nail salon no longer brings in enough money to support her aging relatives. In Cuba, the government provides small amounts of free food to all citizens, but most food and household items must be purchased in stores with a special card loaded with remittances from families abroad.

Those who do not have family abroad, like Patri, are forced to buy most of their goods from their neighbors at high prices. The going price for 2.3 kg (5 lb) of pork is 3,000 Cuban pesos, the equivalent of an average monthly salary — or $19 at the informal conversion rate on the streets of Havana.

Patri hopes that moving to the US will provide her with better financial opportunities, but in order to navigate the new immigration procedures, she must explore new methods of entry.

The first is to join a Facebook group where she can pay thousands of dollars to be matched with a sponsor in the US, but sponsors are few compared to the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants seeking one.

The second is for her to go to Mexico as she originally planned and wait to apply for a Title 42 exemption through the US government’s new application, CBP One, which would allow her to cross the border on foot.

Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-profit human rights organization, says Patri’s chances of getting one of these exceptions anytime soon are slim. And while she waits, she could be living in dangerous conditions as a migrant in Mexico, exposed to extortion, theft, homelessness and kidnapping for ransom.

“Slots for Title 42 exceptions have been booked for two weeks and are fully booked. They are booked as soon as they become available,” Isacson said. “You also have to meet a list of vulnerability criteria. It’s likened to buying Taylor Swift tickets — but of course, instead of not going to the concert, you’re risking death.”

Isacson predicts Cubans will try more creative methods to escape the island under the new restrictions, such as sailing toward Florida on rafts known as horns. “It’s hard to imagine that we won’t see a lot of lighting balsero crises this year in Cuba and Haiti,” he explained.

Amelia, a lawyer in Havana who did not want to give her last name because she helps covertly with immigration cases, said the line of people lining up outside her living room office asking for help has been constant since the new US law was announced.

“I haven’t had a free moment yet,” she said. “There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them.” Her desk is piled high with folders full of documents relating to people she can’t help, mostly because they have no way of finding a sponsor.

Patri leans in to greet her little dog
Patri leans in to greet her dog, Tuti, who will have to stay in Havana if Patri goes to the US [Lillian Perlmutter/Al Jazeera]

Isacson believes the passport requirement is the most damaging aspect of the new restrictions.

“What we’ve done is turn these crappy governments into gatekeepers,” he said of asylum seekers’ home countries. “It’s a huge opportunity for anyone in one of those passport offices who wants a bribe. It has become only a program for rich and middle-class migrants. And the most vulnerable are migrants with weaker means.”

Patri is in favor of a trip to Mexico and is planning her next step there, despite the risks. “I have to stay hopeful,” she said. “Because what else do I have?”

As she spoke, she dabbed a brown bottle which she swung expertly on the client’s eyebrows. For this session, she would receive 250 Cuban pesos, less than two dollars.

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