Biggest wave of Cuban migrants into US since 1980 is driving policy changes

Biden administration officials have been prompted to act on a long-delayed policy review.
Cuban currency, left behind by a migrant, is tied to the border wall in Yuma, Arizona, in February.
Cuban currency, left behind by a migrant, is tied to the border wall in Yuma, Arizona, in February. [ ELLIOT SPAGAT | AP ]
Published May 26, 2022|Updated May 29, 2022

About 115,000 Cubans — more than one percent of the island’s population — left their homeland, fleeing poverty and repression, and reached the U.S. in the past seven months, a mass migration wave on a scale not seen in four decades that has prompted recent changes in U.S. policy and provided the Cuban government an escape valve following unprecedented protests last year.

Between October of last year and April, immigration authorities detained 114,916 Cubans, the vast majority at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the most recent data published by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Cubans accounted for the second-largest group of migrants stopped at the border during March and April, topped only by Mexicans.

The Cuban exodus has been dubbed “a silent Mariel,” a reference to the Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 Cubans came to Florida between April and October 1980.

While Customs provides the number of detentions rather than the exact headcount of Cubans legally admitted — some people might be counted more than once if they cross the border repeatedly — the latest figures show that this “is undoubtedly the largest exodus from Cuba in the last four decades,” said Jorge Duany, an emigration expert who leads the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

Duany said several factors have created “a perfect storm” driving mass migration from Cuba: “the economic recession on the island, the intensification of the economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and maintained until now by the Biden administration, the coronavirus pandemic and the social uprising on July 11″ last year.

Venezuelans and Nicaraguans are also trying to reach the United States in massive numbers, underscoring how the entrenchment of authoritarian regimes can destabilize the region.

The U.S. Border Patrol reported over 90,000 apprehensions of Venezuelans and a similar figure for Nicaraguans during this fiscal year, which began in October.

Almost 2,000 Cubans have been interdicted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard since October, but most of the new arrivals have come by land, many passing through several countries before reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.

Related: 'SOS Cuba' movement shows again that Tampa has a stake in island's future

The journey involves dangerous routes at the hands of smugglers, drug cartels and corrupt local authorities, as Cuban independent media outlet 14ymedio chronicled in a first-person account written by a staff writer, Alejandro Mena Ortiz, who decided to make the journey to emigrate to the United States.

Mena Ortiz wrote that a “lack of hope” pushed him to leave his family and embark on the perilous trip that started in Nicaragua and cost his family around $10,000.

Since November, Cubans have been able to travel to Nicaragua without visas, from which many, if not most, then leave for the U.S.

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Experts attribute the waiver of the visa requirement to a deal cut between Cuba and Nicaragua to use immigration to push back against U.S. sanctions. In the case of Cuba, the strategy seems to have yielded results, prompting Biden administration officials to act on a long-delayed review of Cuba policy.

Following the first high-level talks between U.S. and Cuban officials last month, reportedly focused on migration, President Joe Biden restored a family reunification program and flights to several provinces last week, committed to increasing immigration visa processing in Havana, and lifted the cap on remittances.

Cuba also got the help of one of the United States’ closest partners, Mexico, whose president, the populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, threatened to boycott the forthcoming Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles over the exclusion of Cuba.

The actions on Cuba policy, coupled with the easing of some sanctions against the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, were also a signal to Mexico and other countries that voiced similar concerns that the Biden administration is taking a different approach to the region than his predecessor.

Some of the measures attempt to make legal migration from Cuba easier, as both the Cuban family reunification program and emigration visa processing in Havana had been suspended since 2017. The latter partially resumed this month too.

“It is clear that the U.S. government is trying to stop irregular migration from the island and other Latin American countries to alleviate the migratory crisis on its southern border,” Duany said. “It remains to be seen whether the partial changes proposed, such as the reestablishment of the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, will manage to stop or even reduce the number of people leaving Cuba for the United States by irregular means.”

Each mass exodus from Cuba in the past 60 years has been linked with policy changes on the U.S. side, forcing several administrations to deal with the influx of migrants, particularly during the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the so-called rafter crisis in 1994.

This time, while the arrival of so many Cubans has not become a hot topic in domestic politics, the sheer number at the border has exacerbated the problems for an administration already struggling to manage unprecedented record numbers of migrants on the move.

Most Cubans reaching the U.S. border are allowed to stay and apply for asylum, but that is already changing. Biden administration officials cut a deal with Mexican authorities for Mexico to take more Cubans, primarily young men traveling alone, who are expelled under the controversial pandemic public-health policy known as Title 42. The policy, which allows for the swift expulsion of most undocumented border-crossers, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, was set to end on May 23, but a Louisiana judge has kept it in place.

Mexican authorities also seem to have been making efforts to stop more Cubans in transit to the United States.

The Mexican Migration Institute said the country’s authorities stopped 15,907 Cubans who were trying to reach the U.S. border between January and April. Cuban activists unhappy with the U.S. policy changes have pointed out that the steps taken by Biden officials do little to address another significant driver of migration: Cuban state repression.

After the July 11 protests, several dissidents, human rights activists, artists and independent journalists were forced to leave the country and seek asylum in the U.S. or elsewhere.

In an audio message from the Guanajay prison, where he is awaiting trial, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, founder of the artists’ dissident group Movimiento San Isidro, said he too was given only two options: exile or jail.

“During all these months, the regime has offered me exile from Cuba as the only way out of prison. Otherwise, I will have to serve seven years in jail,” said Alcántara, who was arrested after announcing on Facebook his intention to join the demonstrations that day.

“For so many years, I have endured, as have many of my friends, inhuman persecution and repression by the Cuban regime,” he continued. “Do not leave me alone. Let us not leave the course of Cuba in the hands of a dictator or the course of destiny.”

He is scheduled to go to trial on May 30, facing a seven-year sentence on charges of “contempt of the authorities,” “resisting authorities,” and disrespect of the national flag.

The last charge stems from a 2020 case involving one of his performances with the Cuban flag, Alcántara’s partner, the art curator Claudia Genlui, told the Herald.

So far, she said, Alcántara has refused to join the thousands leaving the island. “Forced exile is not an option,” she said.