Mexico grants residency but denies asylum to Cuban migrants

A Cuban migrant shows his papers to a Costa Rican immigration officer before boarding a government organized bus to the airport in La Cruz, Costa Rica, Jan. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Enrique Martinez)

The Mexican government has decided to grant residency permits to nearly 600 migrants from Cuba, where dismal economic prospects have forced thousands to seek new lives in countries without the means or will to take them.

Mexico’s National Institute of Immigration (INM) said in a statement Friday that it has provided facilities for the migrants to be granted a status of stay in Mexico “for humanitarian reasons,” according to the Havana Times.

The INM said the permits will allow the migrants to work, but will not grant them refugee status or political asylum because “they do not face persecution of any kind.”

The stranded Cubans first entered Mexico through the town of Tapachula, which borders Guatemala, and traveled north to the U.S.-Mexico border town of Nuevo Laredo with the hope of entering the United States. The migrants became trapped, however, after the U.S. suspended a longstanding policy that allowed Cubans who arrived to its territory to legally reside in the country and obtain a fast track to residency.

The “wet foot, dry foot” policy was suspended under former U.S. President Barack Obama, who made controversial efforts restore diplomatic relations with the Castro regime. In anticipation of the policy’s suspension, more than 56,000 Cubans made it to the United States in 2016 – double the number the previous year.

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Experts say Cuba’s mass exodus is driven by endemic poverty and unemployment, especially among young people. Last year, the country’s shrinking economy led to drastic cuts in electricity, imports, investments and fuel consumption.

In search of opportunities for decent work or education, many of Cuba’s economic refugees travel through Central America, which has served as a corridor for Cubans and others traveling by land to try to reach the United States. Costa Rica’s Tico Times reported that some 25,000 Cubans passed through the region in 2015; some were deported back to Cuba, while others reside in shelters or other temporary living situations.

According to media reports in Mexico and other countries, many in-transit Cubans have faced violence and abuse from local officials. Central America’s more economically stable countries fear they may become alternative destinations for the migrants, leading Nicaragua and others to resort to measures such as closing their borders to Cubans without necessary documents.

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Last week in Panama, government officials apparently dropped a group of 71 unwanted Cubans at the border with Costa Rica. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela also gave a Catholic Ministry a one-month deadline to cease the humanitarian accommodation of hundreds of Cuban migrants, claiming the government cannot continue to “encourage such irregular migration by opening such shelters.”

“My recommendation has been for them to return to the country where they came from or to be deported to Cuba,” Varela said.

Like Mexico, Panama has been hesitant to grant political asylum to Cubans. But Victor Berrio, a priest and executive secretary of the Pastoral Ministry, pointed out that Cubans should be eligible for refugee status under international humanitarian agreements.

PanAm Post reported that Berrio assured that he will defend the Cubans, “who for me are the poorest of the poor because they have no rights of any kind, they are humiliated and mistreated.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com