It was mid-July, and a public health clinic in Miami was facing such a sharp spike in new Cuban migrants walking in for their required health screenings that it had to expand its hours of operations in a hurry.
The number of Cubans going to the Florida State Department of Health clinic had surged by 20 percent that June, compared to the three-year average for the month, and experts around South Florida were seeing similar spikes in arrivals.
By the end of August the clinic had returned to its regular hours and Keyler Rodriguez, 27, a hospital worker from Santa Clara who arrived in Miami one month ago, got her health screening last week without any delays.
“I think all Cubans want to leave,” joked Rodriguez, who flew from Cuba to Ecuador one month ago and joined the clandestine stream that takes undocumented Cubans by land through Central America to the U.S. border with Mexico.
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Cuban migrant arrivals in South Florida have now subsided. But at least 44,000 arrived in the United States in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 (FY13) — the highest total since 1994 and 10 percent higher than the estimated 40,000 arrivals in FY12.
Fueling the spike was a brew of factors: Hikes in U.S. visas issued to Cubans; rumors that U.S. benefits for Cuban migrants might be cut; Spain’s economic crisis; Cuba’s easing of its migration rules on Jan. 14; and a crackdown on Cubans living in Ecuador.
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana issued 24,727 immigrant visas in FY13, a slight drop compared to 26,720 in FY12, according to U.S. government figures obtained by El Nuevo Herald. Washington promised to issue at least 20,000 migrant visas to Cubans per year after the 1994 “Rafter Crisis,” which saw 35,000 migrants take to homemade boats, to discourage such risky voyages.
But the number of tourist visas issued in the same periods more than doubled, from 14,362 to 29,927, the figures showed. U.S. officials say that on average, 20 percent of tourist visa recipients remained in the United States in recent years, indicating that about 6,000 of the 29,927 visitors will become migrants.
The increase in tourist visas, sought mostly by elderly Cubans who want to visit U.S. relatives, came as consular staffers cleared away a huge backlog of old applications and processed an increased number of requests after the Jan. 14 reforms.
The second largest group of Cuban migrants came over the border with Mexico, without U.S. visas but under “dry-foot, wet-foot,” the policy that allows Cubans who set foot on U.S. land to stay but returns most of those intercepted at sea.
Mexico border arrivals totaled 13,122 in the 11 months that ended Aug. 31, according to the latest available Customs and Border Protection figures. That was the highest total since FY05 and a 27 percent hike over the 10,315 reported for all of FY12.
Among the border arrivals were many who started out from Ecuador, where friendly immigration rules allowed more than 40,000 Cubans to settle there by 2010, but recent sweeps against undocumented migrants persuaded some to head north.
“Things turned bad in Ecuador,” said Yuraldi Medina, 41, who lived in the South American nation for four years before he left earlier this year, traveling by land to Mexico without proper travel permits and crossing the border four months ago.
NO PLACE TO WORK
Another group of Cuban migrants, whose size is unknown but is widely believed to be growing, has been arriving from Spain, where a deep economic crisis and a 26-percent unemployment rate have been driving out some of the 125,000 Cubans who live there.
“There’s no work for anyone over there,” said Havana native Varinia Colunga, 40, who lived in Spain for 23 years. Using her Spanish passport, she flew to Miami as a tourist in July and will receive residency after one year under the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA).
An estimated 100,000 Cubans obtained Spanish citizenship in recent years under a Madrid law to benefit the descendants of Spanish migrants. Although many remain living in Cuba, all can enter the United States as tourists and obtain residency under the CAA.
Havana hairdresser Lazaro Aguilar, 40, said he migrated to Spain three years ago and later decided to move to South Florida. Lacking a Spanish passport, he used a European Union travel document to fly to Mexico City, then went by land to the U.S. border.
One category of migrants that shrank involved Cubans who arrived by sea, from 423 in FY12 to 359 in FY13 — perhaps because of tight U.S. Coast Guard patrols or because it’s easier to leave the island legally after the Jan. 14 migration reforms.
Havana officials reported 226,877 Cubans made personal trips abroad in the first 10 months of this year, a sharp increase from 167,688 in the same period in 2012. The average from 2000 to 2011 was 82,000 per year, a stunningly low figure for a nation of 11 million people.
The numbers show why the migration reforms have become the most popular changes enacted by Cuba ruler Raúl Castro since he officially succeeded ailing brother Fidel Castro in 2008.
He removed the hated government exit permit known as the white card; ended the confiscation of properties of those who emigrate; and expanded from 11 to 24 months the time that Cubans can remain abroad without losing benefits such as free healthcare. That means they can live in the United States for one year, obtain U.S. residency under the CAA and return to the island in time to preserve their Cuban residence.
PROMPTED BY TALK
Experts on Cuban migration said part of the FY13 spike was triggered by the talk in Miami and Washington in late 2012 and early 2013 about the possibility of tightening the CAA. Then-U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Fl., at one point proposed denying or delaying U.S. residency to any Cuban who returned to the island for visits.
“Our numbers started going up … August-September” of 2012, said Hiram Ruiz, head of the Florida Department of Children and Families’ refugee program, which manages services for Cuban migrants. “They continued to go up — January, February March … we’re like wow! Our numbers this year are going to be astronomical.”
But then the numbers began to fall, and by the end of FY13 his agency had assisted 26,850 Cuban arrivals, only about 1,015 more than in the previous fiscal year, Ruiz said. His numbers cover only those Cubans who come to Florida to receive benefits.
But some of the arrivals have been settling in cities with better job opportunities and lower costs of living than Miami, such as Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Peter Stranges of Catholic Charities in Houston, one of several agencies that assist Cuban migrants in that part of Texas, said his agency alone assisted 600 Cubans in the one-year period ending in May 2013, compared to 150 in the previous period.
In a back-of-the-envelope calculation, Teo Babun, executive director of EchoCuba, which helps independent churches in Cuba, estimated that each migrant arriving in South Florida costs taxpayers $19,000 for housing, health insurance and other services.
However, Randolph P. McGrorty, of Catholic Charities Legal Services of Miami, said that South Florida over the years has built an efficient intake system capable of handling large numbers of Cuban migrants. “I don’t see signs of any strain,” he said.