Cuba blames U.S. for encouraging illegal immigration

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro meeting in early 2016 in Havana, Cuba. (Credit: Associated Press)

Cuban officials say the Obama Administration, for the past two years, has encouraged the illegal and unsafe migration of tens of thousands of Cubans to the United States.

Over the weekend, Havana released a statement saying Cubans leaving the country illegally were the “victims of the politicization of the migration issue by the U.S. government which stimulates illegal and unsafe immigration,” reported Reuters.

The Cuban government said its citizens “receive differential treatment…they are immediately and automatically admitted…including if they arrived by illegal means” lacking documentation, which undermines efforts to normalize relations between Havana and Washington, DC. 

Under a decades-old law called the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cuban citizens are treated as legal immigrants simply if they set foot on U.S. soil. Over the past few years, Cubans are feeling increasing pressure to reach the U.S. before thawing relations between the Cold War rivals leads to a change in this U.S. policy, and with it, the opportunity to easily obtain residency in the U.S.

The law has been particularly contentious as Cubans scramble to reach the U.S. by increasingly dangerous routes – by land, sea and other means. A group of 24 Cubans, who were found this spring at a lighthouse miles off the coast of Florida, appealed in court to stay in the U.S., but a Miami district court judge ruled that the lighthouse did not technically qualify as U.S. soil.

“The closest dry land is seven miles away. The U.S. Coast Guard reviewed the situation and determined the light tower was in the water, was not on dry land,” said assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee.

This type of scenario may become more common now that Cubans are finding it more difficult to reach the U.S. border. Most refugees seek out land routes through South and Central America, but some governments have responded to the increase in Cuban travelers by closing down border routes.

Earlier this year, nearly 8,000 Cuban migrants were stuck in Costa Rica after Nicaragua began denying them entry and were ultimately transported by plane to various cities in Mexico and El Salvador. More recently, Colombia put a stop to the waves of illegal migration, resulting in around 1,200 Cubans stranded in a 2,000 square-foot (200-square-meter) warehouse where a sympathizer has allowed them to take temporary shelter.

To some relief, Colombia announced last week that the refugees would be deported once authorities receive a court permit to remove the migrants.

Reuters reports that as land routes through Central America become more difficult, dangerous and expensive, more Cubans may opt to brave the journey by sea. The U.S. Coast Guard recently reported that since October of last year, at least 5,786 Cubans have tried to migrate to the U.S. by sea and been intercepted, compared with 4,473 in federal fiscal year 2015.

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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