TAPACHULA, Mexico — Cubans are fleeing their island, pushed forward by the fear that easing relations with the United States will, paradoxically, make it harder for them to gain legal status there.
As their numbers multiply another migrant crisis unfolds, in the Western Hemisphere this time, as Cubans who previously passed with ease through South America, Central America, Mexico and onward to the USA are now stranded at the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border and face stricter visa requirements to enter Ecuador.
In the humid heat of Tapachula in southern Mexico, a group of 40 Cubans relax on a sea of mattresses in a migrant shelter usually filled with about 15 Central American migrants.
The shelter now often repurposes a playroom for the growing number of Cuban migrants passing through Mexico on their journey north in pursuit of economic opportunities.
“I left Cuba because the economy is in bad shape and I’m searching for a better life,” said 24-year-old Erick Fernández Márquez, sitting on a couch in the shelter.
Fernández Márquez and his 23-year-old brother, José, are part of a new exodus of Cubans fleeing the island since President Raúl Castro loosened travel restrictions and President Barack Obama began to restore diplomatic relations with the island nation a year ago.
Cubans have traveled through Mexico to the U.S. for decades, but the numbers of migrants entering through land has been rising significantly since 2011. More than 27,000 Cuban migrants entered the U.S. from June to October 2015, a 78 percent increase from the same time period the year before.
“It probably has to do with the relations between the U.S. and Cuba that are changing so much,” said Salva Lacruz, the coordinator at an immigrant human-rights organization in Tapachula, who has noticed an influx of Cubans in Mexico’s southern state Chiapas.
The Cuban Adjustment Act, dating back to the height of the Cold War in 1966, provides migrants from the Communist country with an expedited pathway to citizenship. After the Mariel boatlift of 1980 and subsequent efforts by Cubans to cross the strait to Florida on leaky homemade boats, the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy adopted by Washington in 1995 altered the requirements, so that Cubans intercepted at sea would be sent back to Cuba.
So the great circle route became popular, into mainland Latin America and up across the border into the United States, with the prospect of quick naturalization even if you’d entered illegally to begin with.
Many migrants, like the Fernández Márquez brothers, fear another change in policy, spurred by Obama’s December 2014 announcement that would initiate formal relations with Cuba, which could limit their eligibility to gain legal status in the U.S.
Cuba is going through tough times. Its economic growth stagnated in 2011, with the annual GDP remaining at 2.1 percent despite Raúl Castro’s economic reforms, such as legalizing self-employment and home and car sales.
The U.S. voted at the UN to maintain the U.S. embargo, which both Fidel and Raúl Castro have long blamed for the country’s economic woes.
“Everything is so expensive. If you go to the store to buy something, your salary is not going to be enough,” said José Fernández Márquez. “Cuba doesn’t change. It’s always the same.”
José Fernández Márquez’s forearm bears the name of his mother, Marivel, a constant reminder to the brothers of what propels them forward. Marivel and their one remaining brother in Cuba struggle to make ends meet.
“Before, people were mostly leaving from Havana, but now they are leaving from all parts of the country,” said José Fernández Márquez, who worked as a welder in the Cuban capital. “The economy stays the same and everyone is looking for a better life.”
Visa regulations are already evolving as some immigration offices in Central America and Mexico feel the burden of processing Cuban migrants for exit visas, which allow them a short grace period to willingly leave the country.
More than 3,000 Cubans remain stranded in Costa Rica since Nicaragua denied them passage weeks ago, claiming that the country closed the border with Costa Rica to protects its sovereignty.
The Fernández Márquez brothers passed through Nicaragua, the fifth of eight countries on their journey, without problems a few weeks ago.
En route from Havana to live with their brother in Las Vegas, Erick and José flew to Ecuador, where minimal visa requirements made the country an ideal starting point for Cubans. (Ecuador recently revised its migration policy to require tourist visas from Cubans.)
The brothers then teamed up with other Cubans making the same trip. They narrowly escaped a run-in with corrupt officials in Colombia, rode a small boat to Panama, and traveled through Central America by bus to cross the Suchiate River into Mexico.
Traveling through eight countries provides more safety and reliability than a boat directly from the island across 90 miles of water between Cuba and Key West, Florida.
“It takes longer and there is risk, but you arrive,” said Erick Fernández Márquez, who failed to make it to the U.S. by boat on a previous attempt.
A four-hour flight from southern Mexico to the U.S. border will complete their month-long, $4,000 journey. Extra money from relatives in the U.S. and a transit visa in Mexico allows the brothers to avoid the risk of corrupt officials, gangs, and extortion in Mexico.
“It helps,” Erick said about obtaining transit visas in Mexico. “The worst is the bus and we want to avoid that risk. Riding the train is absolutely crazy. You’re not going to see any Cuban on the train.”
The young migrant scoffs at the idea of risking a limb or even death to mount a moving train. He carries a backpack with a change of clothes and extra money, a luxury Central Americans forgo on their journey.
Regardless of a migrant’s country of origin, for his brother José Fernández Márquez searching for a decent quality of life should be a human right.
“I would like for anyone who is having a tough time to be able to search for a better life,” said José Fernández Márquez of U.S. immigration policy. “Or that Cuba changes so we don’t have to migrate.”