The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cubans were once privileged migrants to the United States. Now they’re stuck at the border, like everyone else.

Cooks prepare lunchtime specials at Little Habana, a restaurant in Ciudad Juárez that employs and caters to the growing number of Cubans waiting at the U.S. border for asylum hearings. (Mary Beth Sheridan/The Washington Post)

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — His father-in-law reached Miami on a raft. His brother-in-law hopped a plane to Ecuador and headed north over land.

Now it was Alejandro Vega Tamayo’s turn. But when the 27-year-old Cuban reached the U.S. border this summer, he got an unpleasant surprise. Under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, asylum seekers were being told to wait in Mexico for their appointments with U.S. officials. Five months later, he’s still stranded.

“We left home thinking it would be quick,” Vega Tamayo said as he restocked the refrigerator at the Caribbean Queen, the Cuban restaurant in Juárez where he’s working. In the past, he said, “you’d spend two hours detained, they’d do the paperwork and let you go.” 

As the Trump administration clamps down on immigration, perhaps no group has suffered such a dramatic reversal as Cubans.

For decades, they were A-list immigrants. The U.S. government, citing repression by the island’s communist government, welcomed them as residents. Even after the Cold War ended, arriving Cubans were treated as political refugees.

That protection ended at the beginning of 2017, part of the Obama administration’s Cuban thaw. And the Trump administration has made it tougher for people seeking asylum from any country. Its goal is mainly to discourage the Central American families who have flooded the U.S. border, overwhelming authorities who made nearly 1 million apprehensions over the past year. But Cubans have gotten caught up in the crackdown.

“We used to have privileges. Now they don’t exist,” said Junior González, 31, as he rolled ground-meat croquettes at Little Habana, another restaurant that’s opened to serve the growing Cuban community here.

The new restrictions have coincided with a surge in Cubans fleeing their homeland. More than 21,000 Cubans were detained at the U.S. border in the year ending Sept. 30 — more than triple the number for fiscal 2018.

The result has been a backlog of Cubans in border cities. The numbers have swelled to around 4,500 in Juárez, which probably makes them the city’s largest foreign migrant group, said Alejandro Valenzuela, a Chihuahua state official who handles migration issues in the city.

The Cubans stand out for their education, their spotless Nike sneakers and Under Armour T-shirts — and their fear. Thieves, kidnappers and corrupt cops prey on them, believing many get cash from well-off relatives in the United States.

“We’re really afraid,” said Vega Tamayo. “We just work and go home. It’s house and work, every day.”

As Trump tightens the border, migrants seek asylum in Mexico and other countries

In Cuba, Vega Tamayo worked in a small metal-rod factory in the eastern province of Granma. “A million things” upset him, he said. The police harassment. The withering economy. The stultifying political system.

And then, in January, something remarkable happened: Nicaragua adopted new rules that made it easier to get visas at its Havana consulate. 

“That was the moment for the Cubans,” Vega Tamayo said.

Within a few months, he and his wife had sold everything — even their bed — traveled to Nicaragua and begun their journey through Central America.

Many Cubans headed for Juárez, since another major border crossing, Tijuana, was saturated with Central Americans who’d arrived in caravans last year.

Juan Fierro, an evangelical pastor, has run a migrant shelter in Juárez for years. Normally it hosted up to 60 people. Then came the Cubans.

“We went to 110, then to 150, then to 180, then to 220 and hit 260. We didn’t have a single space for another mattress,” he recalled. He resorted to bedding down migrants in his pickup truck.

“It was a huge phenomenon,” he said. “It was pure Cubans.”

And then in June, everything changed.

Facing a threat of punishing U.S. tariffs, Mexico began detaining thousands of migrants arriving in the country. It deported 768 Cubans in the first eight months of this year, compared with 179 all of last year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government expanded its Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP. The program had forced Central American asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims were processed. Suddenly, Cubans were included, too.

U.S. authorities have also escalated deportations of Cubans, sending home more than 1,000 in the past fiscal year — a sixfold increase since 2017.

The Trump administration has also tried to block asylum for most migrants who travel through other nations to reach the United States. Officials say those migrants should seek protection in the first country they reach outside their own.

Some Cubans, worried about being rejected by the United States, are now trying to stay in Mexico.

“It’s this really dramatic change,” said Geoff Thale, a senior official at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The number of Cuban asylum seekers in Mexico is way up, the number of Cuban deportees sent back by Mexico is way up, and attacks and kidnappings of Cubans by cartels are up.” 

This is not what the Cubans were expecting.

Outraged at their plight, they have staged several mass escapes from Mexican immigration facilities, including one in April by more than 1,000 detainees. In recent weeks, the number of Cuban arrivals in Juárez has plunged.

“We survive and wait,” said José Alberto, 29, who was a physiotherapist in Cuba but is now the cook at the Caribbean Queen. “We are all in suspense.” He spoke on the condition that his last name not be used while his asylum case is pending.

Surge of Mexican asylum seekers is new challenge for Trump administration

Ironically, other Trump policies could drive more Cubans to try to migrate. His administration has increased sanctions and travel restrictions on the island, exacerbating its economic crisis.

Meanwhile, the channels for legal migration from Cuba have narrowed. The U.S. government has largely halted a program that granted 20,000 family-reunification visas to Cubans each year, after shuttering its consular section in Havana in 2017 because of a mysterious illness that affected diplomats.

Cubans aren’t fleeing the kind of gang violence that has left thousands dead in Central America. But some say they suffered political persecution back home. Others talk about a sense of hopelessness living under an authoritarian communist system.

Carlos Daniel Nodal, a 21-year-old barber, said his family “didn’t live badly” in Cuba thanks to cash sent by relatives in Miami. But even with a master’s degree, he said, his father earned $80 a month.

“There’s no future for young Cubans,” he said.

Unlike the Central Americans, the Cubans have largely been welcomed in Mexico. Many have enough money to rent apartments or hotel rooms and to eat out. At least five Cuban restaurants have opened recently in Juárez, and enterprising Cubans have set up street carts hawking a national favorite, corn fritters.

“They’re well-dressed, they fill the hotels, they buy food,” said Iván Ramos, 38, a street vendor. “It helps the economy.”

But the Cubans’ access to dollars also makes them a target. In August, state police burst into a Juárez hotel and robbed Cuban asylum seekers of $2,000 in cash and valuables, according to authorities.

Coming from a country with little crime, the Cubans have been stunned by the violence in Juárez, where more than 1,000 people have been killed this year. 

Despite everything, the Cubans still have one advantage: Under a 1966 law, they can apply for residence in the United States after being there for a year. But they must arrive legally.

So for now, they hunker down along the Mexican border, waiting and hoping.

“We can’t do anything,’ said Alberto. “Donald Trump has the last word.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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