According to the national human rights commission, CNDH, more than 1,000 Cubans were processed at the Tapachula migratory facility in the space of one week in October, far more than the 2015 monthly average for the whole country.
The surge in Cubans is largely motivated by fears that their unique migration privileges could be revoked, after the restoration of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington last year. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act has already been tweaked once to the detriment of migrants, when the U.S. implemented the 1995 “wet foot, dry foot” policy, stipulating that Cubans apprehended at sea be repatriated.
“Cubans are afraid that [the U.S.] will change the law, so many think they are running out of time,” said a government worker from Havana waiting outside the Tapachula migration facility.
Unlike all other foreigners, Cubans who reach U.S. soil are fast-tracked to permanent residency because of an American policy, dating back to the Cold War, deeming that those who flee to the U.S. are political refugees. Most countries along the land route now provide them with transit visas to continue their journey north, and the likelihood of deportation is increasingly slim.
Yet these nations are now struggling with the Cuban influx. In Honduras the migration office was closed during a three-day national holiday in October, resulting in a massive buildup of pending requests for transit visas. That, in turn, caused a huge spike in Mexico, overwhelming authorities’ ability to attend to them.
Cubans waited for days to be admitted inside the migration facility in Tapachula, the largest in Mexico, with capacity for almost 1,000 people. Many piled into nearby hotels or slept outside under tarps to escape the sweltering heat and rain. Others were received by César Augusto Cañaveral Pérez, a Catholic priest who has started to open the doors of his shelter for infirm migrants to Cubans.
The circuitous trip overland is attractive because it is cheaper and considered safer than traveling by sea. Cubans who enter the U.S. by sailing across the Florida Straits to Miami Beach pay about $10,000 to make the six-day voyage, migrants told Al Jazeera, whereas a monthlong slog across Central America and Mexico usually does not rise above $5,000. The lifting of travel restrictions on the island in 2013 has facilitated this process, enabling Cubans to fly part of the way if they can afford it.
In sharp contrast to the hundreds of thousands of impoverished Central Americans that flood across Mexico’s southern border each year — usually fleeing deadly violence from drug gangs — Cubans could easily be mistaken for tourists.
They are often well dressed and educated, having left Cuba in order to pursue economic opportunities that they cannot find at home. Many sell their property to afford the trip or scrounge money from relatives in Cuba and the U.S.
“Cubans are very well prepared,” said Edgar Corzo Sosa, a CNDH general inspector in Mexico City. “They travel in groups because they know there is safety in numbers. They are informed about the legal system, and they know their human rights.”
Cubans are becoming more outspoken about violations of those rights. In July this year, migrants from Cuba filed 15 complaints with the federal prosecutor’s office in Mexico against INM officials for allegedly demanding bribes.
“I got lucky, very lucky,” said Herman, 39, a Cuban engineer, recounting how he narrowly escaped Colombian police who roughed up one of his traveling companions and stole his money. “Now I hate Colombia. I will hate it forever.”