Monday, October 15, 2007

Cuban migrants have it easier on U.S.-Mexico border. Many Mexicans and South Americans immigrants argue they are no different from Cubans and are also escaping from oppression and poverty.

The United States has tightened security on the Mexican border and deported illegal immigrants but one group of Hispanics is welcome at border posts: Cubans fleeing the communist island.
Unlike migrants from across Latin America who trek through deserts and mountains to enter the United States, Cubans only have to show up and request political asylum to be allowed in.

With the U.S. Coast Guard stemming the flow of Cubans across the Florida Straits, record numbers now head for Mexico and then travel overland to the U.S. border on routes used by hundreds of thousands of other Hispanic immigrants a year.

Some 11,500 Cubans arrived in the United States this way in the last 12 months, mainly through Texas, almost twice as many as in 2005, U.S. government statistics show.

Most are male, between 30 and 45 years old and pay smugglers up to $15,000 each to board packed speed boats for a 140-mile (225-km) ride from communist Cuba to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. There, they are driven in trucks to the border and present themselves as Cubans to enter the United States.

Although they do not have to risk their lives trekking through the desert or crossing the Rio Grande river like other Latin American migrants, the Cubans still have a hard time.

"It is a terrible ordeal. You risk your life to cross the ocean and then you have to get across Mexico illegally," said Leo, a 31-year-old Cuban computer technician who declined to give his second name, at the border bridge into Laredo, Texas.

Abandoned by his smugglers in central Mexico as they approached a military highway checkpoint, Leo made his way to Texas hiding in the back of buses. "I've been robbed and beaten, I haven't eaten in days," he said.

Under U.S. "wet foot, dry foot" immigration rules, Cubans who make it onto U.S. soil can usually stay and apply for residency while those intercepted at sea are sent back. Illegal immigrants from other Latin American countries are sent back no matter where they are captured.


The traditional route for Cubans was across the Florida Straits to join families in Miami.

But the U.S. Coast Guard patrols the waters off Florida to block drugs smuggling and in the last 12 months it intercepted almost 3,000 Cubans. Less than 5,000 made it through to reach U.S. soil so the longer route via Mexico is now more popular.

"You've got to show your Cuban I.D. card or birth certificate and then they let you pass into U.S. territory on parole. From there you're on your own. I bought a ticket to Miami," said 36-year-old photographer Cristobal Herrera, who crossed over from the Mexican border city of Reynosa wearing a T-shirt saying "Fugitive."

Following the failure of U.S. President George W. Bush's immigration reform proposals in June, Washington is more focused on boosting border security and plans 700 miles (1,120 km) of new fencing to keep out illegal immigrants.

"How people get to the border is not our concern. We do what the law allows us to do and we try to process the Cubans as quickly as possible," said Gene Garza, the U.S. Customs port director for the Laredo area.

Critics say the policy is unfair to other Latin American migrants, and is a political instrument to destabilize Cuba's communist leaders rather than help ordinary Cubans.

Washington has tried to bring down Cuban leader Fidel Castro ever since he came to power in a 1959 revolution, expropriated U.S. companies and allied with the Soviet Union.

"If the United States wanted to extend a helping hand to ordinary Cubans, it would give out more visas at the U.S. consulate in Havana," said Jose Pertierra, a Washington-based immigration lawyer who handles Cuban cases.

"This is about propaganda so the United States can say: Look! Cubans are risking their lives to leave in droves."

The U.S. consulate in Havana granted 15,000 visas in the last 12 months, 5,000 short of an annual quota agreed in 1994-95 to prevent a mass exodus of Cubans from the island.
It says it does not have enough staff to process more visas and blames Cuban red tape for the shortfall.

Many Mexicans and South American immigrants argue they are no different from Cubans and are also escaping from oppression and poverty.

"I tried six times to get across and they caught me and put me in a Texas prison for 18 months. I'm not a criminal," said construction worker Alberto Ornelas, 35, in Nuevo Laredo across the border from Texas.

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