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Immigration influx tests newcomers and organizations in Tampa

Cuban migrants and others fleeing to Florida are driving up school enrollment and need for services.
Cubans gathering in front of Lutheran Services, in Tampa on Jan. 10, 2023. The arrival of the new immigrants is reflected in the demand for general information and social services.
Cubans gathering in front of Lutheran Services, in Tampa on Jan. 10, 2023. The arrival of the new immigrants is reflected in the demand for general information and social services. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published Jan. 23|Updated Jan. 23

TAMPA — He left Cuba seven months ago with his wife and three kids in a journey that took him from his native Guantanamo through Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Joelvis Verdecia, 33, has never been a Cuban dissident. But like most on the island, he felt the pressure of an economic crisis, food shortages and high prices.

Unemployed for six months because of coronavirus, his family survived with savings and with the help of friends and relatives.

“We could no longer live in Cuba,” said Verdecia. “You have to leave because if not, you will regret it forever.”

His older brother, Yoendry, 36, a Cuban pastor, husband and a father of two girls, reached the Arizona border three weeks ago hoping for asylum after a grueling trek that began 89 days ago.

Both Cubans are part of a wave of tens of thousands who have left homes in the Caribbean and Latin America. The surge of migration to the Sunshine State is overwhelming local resources and pushing the system to its limits.

Joelvis Verdecia waiting for his brother outside the Lutheran Services in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. Verdecia came to the United States after a long and dangerous journey through Central America.
Joelvis Verdecia waiting for his brother outside the Lutheran Services in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. Verdecia came to the United States after a long and dangerous journey through Central America. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
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In fiscal year 2022, federal authorities made more than 2.2 million arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border, the most ever recorded, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In recent months more than 4,400 migrants, mostly Cubans and some Haitians, have arrived by boat in Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently mobilized the state’s National Guard to respond to migrants landing in the Florida Keys: 700 Cubans over the New Year’s weekend alone.

The arrival of new immigrants represents a challenge not only for government agencies but also nonprofit organizations, community groups, and even public schools.

All are seeing a historic increase for social services and counseling among newcomers, who choose to leave their countries due to poverty and corruption, violence and extortion.

Elizabeth Aranda, a sociology professor and director of the Immigrant Well-Being Research Center at the University of South Florida, said most people would rather remain in their homes as long as there is political, economic, and social stability and security.

“To uproot oneself and one’s family is a tremendous ordeal, particularly when we find that people are crossing the borders of multiple countries to seek asylum,” she said. “It is a perilous journey that no one would undertake unless they had to.”

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‘We are full’

Under pressure to address the influx, President Joe Biden said the country will accept 30,000 people a month for two years from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti as long as they have sponsors and pass background checks. Migrants from those four nations who cross the border will be immediately returned to Mexico under a pandemic rule known as Title 42.

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Former political prisoner Roberto Pizano, 84, a member of Casa Cuba, an anticommunist organization founded by Cuban exiles in Tampa, said new immigrants have the right to look for better opportunities. But he doesn’t support chaos.

“It is a crisis for the United States, but Cuba in particular is and has been, for more than six decades, a trigger for this type of humanitarian crisis,” said Pizano. “We have to do something to stop the vicious cycle and not feed it.”

José Fernández, director of immigration services for Catholic Charities in St. Petersburg, said there are still strong divisions about what should be done to fix the problem. Catholic Charities helps hundreds of immigrants and their families every year.

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In his 35 years of experience, José Fernández, director of immigration services for Catholic Charities, has never seen so many people and families asking for assistance. The mass migration is mainly of people from Latin America. In the photo: Fernández interviewing Álvaro Quiroz, 31, and his wife Gabriela, 30, a Nicaraguan couple, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Mission, in Wimauma, Florida on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.
In his 35 years of experience, José Fernández, director of immigration services for Catholic Charities, has never seen so many people and families asking for assistance. The mass migration is mainly of people from Latin America. In the photo: Fernández interviewing Álvaro Quiroz, 31, and his wife Gabriela, 30, a Nicaraguan couple, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Mission, in Wimauma, Florida on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Last year, over 2,000 people used the group’s immigration and citizenship services, slightly more than in 2021. The Catholic Charities’ offices in St. Petersburg, Dover, Tampa and Wimauma help with immigration and asylum paperwork and family reunification.

Fernández believes that the number of those helped could be higher at the end of the year. In his 35 years of experience, he has never seen so many people and families asking for help. About 40 people are now getting aid every day — about twice the average from the previous two years, Fernández said.

In Hillsborough County, the nonprofit Mujeres Restauradas por Dios is also seeing increased demand for humanitarian aid. Last week, its founder Nancy Hernandez and 14 volunteers gathered to organize on a chilly Wednesday and Friday at her office along Nebraska Avenue.

Dozens of vehicles snaked around the parking lot and onto the street, she said. During those two days they gave out a total of 700 bags with dry goods and fresh food, an amount consistent over the past six months.

A year ago Hernández worked with five volunteers and used to distribute 300 boxes of food.

“Our first wave happened after the pandemic, and the majority were local residents,” she said. “Now, and over the last few months, we are trying to help the new immigrants.”

Among America’s 100 largest metro areas, Tampa Bay was already one of the most popular migration destinations from 2010 to 2020, according to a study by the George W. Bush Institute-SMU.

María Garavito, leader of La Red de Padres Activos (The Network of Active Parents program) at the Hispanic Services Council, said the recent migration in the Tampa Bay area can be seen in student enrollment in public schools.

As of December, the Hillsborough County Public Schools had 10,038 immigrant students, with 3,410 of those enrolling since the start of the school year. The district typically has around 9,000 immigrant students each year. The students have come from more than 20 countries, with the majority from Cuba (2,655); Honduras (890); Venezuela (883); and Colombia (703), according to the English Language Learners department. In Pinellas County the number of student migrants who enrolled in public schools increased by 312 from August to December. They were predominantly from Cuba followed by Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Florida has the third-largest Latino student population in the country. The percentage of new Hispanic students has been trending up for the past five years in the Tampa Bay area, most of them from Latin America and the Caribbean. More than 80,000 students in Hillsborough County identify as Hispanic.

“There is a big demand for information, and during the last six months we have served a lot of newly arrived population,” said Garavito.

Her network prepares Latino kids for success in school by partnering with organizations to engage parents in their children’s education. Now they are serving over 20 families when the typical number was no more than 10.

“We are full,” she said.

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The human face of immigration

Álvaro Quiroz, 31, and his wife Gabriela, 30, grew up in a modest neighborhood on the outskirts of Managua in Nicaragua.

In June, the family decided to leave their country.

The journey took a month. They slept in the open and went hungry until they reached the Mexican city of Reynosa, in the state of Tamaulipas. From there, they crossed the Rio Grande into Texas.

“Only those who really live it can know what the experience of crossing the border means,” Quiroz said. “I do not wish it on anyone.”

Now they live in Ruskin where he has a temporary construction job earning $15 per hour. They do not have savings or money to hire an immigration lawyer. With no credit history, the couple bought an old Acura for less than $2,000.

“We depend on the help that friends or groups like Catholic Charities can offer us to move forward with our paperwork,” said Gabriela. “But it is not easy. Many people are in need, we are not the only ones.”

A group of Nicaraguans share ideas and experiences in Wimauma. From left to right: Gabriela Quiroz, 30, and Álvaro Quiroz, 31, along with Erwin Palacios, 36, outside of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic church in Wimauma, Florida on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.
A group of Nicaraguans share ideas and experiences in Wimauma. From left to right: Gabriela Quiroz, 30, and Álvaro Quiroz, 31, along with Erwin Palacios, 36, outside of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic church in Wimauma, Florida on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Before Joelvis Verdecia arrived in the U.S. seven months ago, he was selling toys and piñatas in Cuba.

In Tampa he installs doors in hotels and offices six days a week.

“I’ve learned this here, and I earn $16 an hour,” he said. “It’s not bad to start, but you have to work a lot to make money.”

Joelvis’ family lives in a three-bedroom house in Brandon, paying $2,300 a month.

Two other Cuban friends who came to the United States with them live less than 2 miles away.

“We help each other,” Joelvis said. “It’s good to have friends when you start in this country.”

His brother, Yoendri, left his wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 4, behind in Cuba.

He found work installing laminate flooring. In Cuba, he was the pastor of a Baptist church for over 16 years. During the first week of October he traveled to Suriname with a tourist visa. It was the beginning of a journey through 14 countries until he finally crossed on Dec. 28 the desert city of Yuma, at the U.S. southern border with Mexico and Arizona.

He lost 60 pounds and slept in the open.

“It’s difficult because you don’t have your family,” said Yoendri. “I was a pastor. Now I’m an immigrant.”