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Above: a refugee camp in Costa Rica housing Cubans on their way to Mexico to walk across the U.S. border into Texas. Photo courtesy of Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)
One dry foot on U.S. soil and they’re in–legally–for good. Not since the infamous Mariel boatlift in 36 years ago have so many Cuban refugees sought refuge in the U.S. The new surge, largely kept quiet, is focused on an unlikely route that brings the immigrants across the Mexican border into Laredo, Texas.
That’s the district of Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar. He says he believes the Obama administration was trying to keep the deluge secret. He only learned of it by word of mouth and, even then, says he had trouble getting hard facts from the federal government.
“Without a doubt, they knew about it, no ifs, no buts,” says Cuellar. “But why they were not providing that information, why they were not even providing that information to members of Congress that represent those areas is, with all due respect to the administration, I don’t think that was the right thing to do.”
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the Cuban influx.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 43,124 Cubans crossed into the U.S. last fiscal year. This year, there could be even more: in less than five months from Oct. 1, 2015 through Feb. 24, 2016, there have been another 25,806. That adds up to 68,930 in the past 17 months. Since the current uptick began about four and a half years ago, a total of 123,173 Cuban refugees have made it to the U.S.
The Mariel boatlift was a mass emigration triggered in 1980 when Cuban dictator Fidel Castro emptied out prisons and announced anyone who wanted to leave the island nation would be allowed to go. Between April 15 and October 31, 1980, 125,000 refugees made a treacherous 90-mile journey, sometimes in inner tubes and flimsy rafts, to the south Florida shores.
Because it’s difficult for Cubans to get visas to fly here legally, and they are sent back if intercepted at sea, many have taken an unlikely route flying to Ecuador, Costa Rica and then Mexico where they walk across the border into Laredo, Texas. Thousands are housed at camps in Central and South American waiting for transport. Cuellar says the pipeline likely is organized with help of illegal human traffickers and drug smugglers.
Under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, Cubans receive special refugee status ahead of all others and are entitled to immediate federal benefits upon their arrival. The consideration was given because they were fleeing political oppression under the Castro regime.
Cuellar is pro-legal immigration but says it’s no longer fair to give Cubans an advantage over refugees in equally or more desperate situations.
“I can understand if somebody comes in and makes their case… credible fear, refugee, asylum… you make your case in front of an immigration judge. But what other country gets a blanket ‘you get to the U.S. and you’re in’? No other country gets that.”
Cuban refugee advocates in the U.S. say Castro’s Cuba is a hopeless land of oppression and despair, and that the hard working citizens who are fleeing deserve to be embraced in America as so many before them have been.
Below is the U.S. Customs and Border Protection tally of Cuban refugees from fiscal year 2004 through Feb. 24, 2016.