Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Nora Gámez Torres

Are Cuban migrants in the United States ‘illegals’? That might be the wrong question

MIAMI — Cuba’s coastal cities of Matanzas and Cienfuegos each have around 177,000 residents.

That is also the astonishing number of Cubans that U.S. immigration authorities have stopped at the country’s borders from last October to June, an exodus already the size of a major Cuban city that is not showing signs of abating.

A majority of the 177,848 recorded encounters with Cubans at the borders nationwide in that period happened at the southern border with Mexico. But Cubans who had no money or help from relatives to afford land trips that sometimes cross through half the continent are taking an even more risky route by sea.

On the island, protests are now common, a reality almost unthinkable just a few years ago. People have grown tired of the precarious conditions of life, with food and medicine shortages and, lately, daily blackouts. As government repression increases, many are just trying to leave, almost naturally, to the U.S., where relatives and friends could lend a hand.

For the most part, the exodus has been quietly playing outside the spotlight of Florida politics. But controversy followed recent comments by Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez — a Cuban-American Republican from Miami — who appeared to suggest Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis would favor busing “illegal” immigrants, including Cubans coming through the border, to other states.

Her office tried to walk back the comments, arguing she was not referring to Cuban migrants because they were fleeing a dictatorship and had grounds to claim asylum.

But referring to Cuban migrants — or many others of different nationalities — released into the country as “illegals” is more about politics than immigration law.

“It is a misconception,” said David Claros, the managing attorney for the Church World Service’s South Florida legal department, which provides low-cost legal immigration representation.

In a nutshell, for many migrants, including Cubans, a final decision on their legal status does not come immediately after reaching the U.S. border, but could even take years, during which they are legally authorized to stay and work in the country, he said.

Cubans stopped at the border or who made landfall from the sea are deemed “inadmissible,” a term used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to process people who try to come to the U.S. without visas. Border Patrol agents apprehend some because they are crossing between the official points of entry, an infraction of immigration law.

But border authorities do not usually criminally prosecute Cubans for crossing the border. Instead, because they pass the bar of a “credible fear” interview, in which they state fear of retaliation or prosecution if sent back to Cuba, the island’s nationals are usually put into deportation proceedings, formally called “removal proceedings,” and ordered to appear later at a hearing in an immigration court.

“A person might have entered, or tried to enter, not through a port of entry, and that is an issue, but once apprehended and released, once processed and put into removal proceedings, they’re not illegally here,” Claros said. “They’re here waiting for their case to be heard; they have due process rights for that. And there’s no illegality behind it.”

Being under removal proceedings is not a final determination of a migrant’s legal status but just the beginning of a lengthy process that can take years. If they have not been previously deported or are known to have committed a serious crime, most Cuban migrants are released at the border and authorized to stay in the country until an immigration judge decides on their legal status.

In the meantime, they have one year to apply for asylum and fight deportation. Cuban asylum-seekers and those paroled into the country are authorized to work. Even after final orders of deportation have been handed down, many Cuban nationals are allowed to work and stay in the country because Cuba will not take them back.

For most Cuban migrants, there’s a shortcut to legal status: It is called the Cuban Adjustment Act. The 1966 law allows Cuban migrants who have been admitted or paroled into the country to file a petition to obtain permanent residence after living in the U.S. one year and a day.

Most Cubans also qualify for benefits and services from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

But there are also differences in how Cuban migrants navigate the system.

Border authorities have broad discretion on how they handle each case. According to interviews with Cuban migrants, lawyers, social workers and U.S. officials, that has resulted in Cuban migrants receiving different types of release documents, which can result in different paths and sometimes obstacles to obtaining legal status.

But to Cubans on the island, U.S. immigration hurdles do not appear to be a deterrent. Worlds apart from Florida politics, some of the island’s residents seem so fed up with the poverty and lack of liberties brought by communism that they don’t seem to fear the dangers of a sea voyage in handmade rafts with no navigation system.

Between Friday and Saturday, U.S. Coast Guard cutters took back 309 Cubans attempting to reach U.S. shores. Four dogs were also repatriated.


Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.