The recent U.S. immigration policy changes first ordered by former President Barack Obama and then by sitting President Donald Trump have left a particular group of Hispanics caught in the immigration crossfire: Cubans.
On Jan. 12, just a few days before his departure, Obama signed an executive order to end the program that allowed Cuban doctors who defected from government missions in third countries to enter the United States. He also eliminated the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed Cubans without visas to stay if they reach U.S. territory.
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With the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, the Obama administration abandoned the rhetoric that depicted Cubans as refugees fleeing a dictatorship and began to view them as economic migrants.
Stunned by the measure — issued without a grace period — thousands of Cubans who had started their journey toward the U.S.-Mexico border, and doctors who had already abandoned their government posts but did not file paperwork for U.S. entry by the Jan. 12 cutoff, were left in limbo.
Trump’s executive order suspending the admission of refugees for 120 days has added to the chaos and reduced already limited options for these migrants.
DHS clarified that the temporary suspension of refugee admissions to the U.S. does not affect Cuban doctors who applied for CMPP.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) clarified that the temporary suspension of refugee admissions to the United States does not affect Cuban doctors who applied for the Cuban Medical Professional Parole (CMPP) before its termination, because it “is not a part of the U.S. refugee program.”
Some of the doctors with pending applications have already been paroled into the U.S. On Monday, a group of 20 is expected from Colombia.
But for those who remain stranded in third countries, the options are shrinking.
The U.S. government has reiterated that Cuban migrants at the border can ask for political asylum, but they need to prove that their fear of persecution if returned to the island is credible.
Due to the executive order signed by Obama, Cubans are now subject to “expedited removal” if they cannot win their asylum cases and as a result of the subsequent executive order signed by Trump, it is likely that they will be detained during the entire process.
Another option for those stranded is that “Cubans in third countries may bring their concerns to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees” (UNHCR), said a State Department spokesperson. That doesn’t mean they will automatically be sent to the U.S., even if the UNHCR supports their request to be considered refugees.
The first step is to apply for refugee status or asylum in the country where they are. Francesca Fontanini, the UNHCR spokeswoman for Latin America explained that, in the case of Mexico, the agency helps migrants apply for asylum, but the Mexican government makes the final decision.
Only 65 Cubans have recently sought asylum in Mexico, Fontanini said. That country is not the destination of the majority of Cuban migrants, many of whom have relatives in Florida. In addition, the Mexican government signed an agreement with Cuba to deport irregular migrants entering its territory. Ninety one Cubans were repatriated Jan. 20.
Governments decide whether to welcome refugees, and how many. If a country decides not to accept the asylum applications from Cubans, they may be referred by the UNHCR to the resettlement program, said a source from the State Department. Having family ties in the country might be a favorable reason to consider sending the Cuban refugee to the United States, instead of Australia or another welcoming country, the source added.
But the process to request asylum or refugee status is “very meticulous,” Fontanini said. “The important thing is that applicants can demonstrate that they meet the criteria laid down in the Convention of 1951,” which distinguishes refugees from economic migrants.
Cubans can also apply for refugee admission directly at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, through a special program. In any case, admission of refugees from any country is suspended until May.
In Havana, the applicant must demonstrate that he or she is a member of a persecuted religious minority, a former political prisoner, was sent to a forced labor camp, has been deprived of professional qualifications or has been subjected “to other disproportionately severe and discriminatory treatment as a result of their beliefs and political and religious activities.”
Many of the stranded Cubans may not be able to prove any of those, even if they return to the island to apply, but many sold everything they owned to emigrate and have nothing to return to. Others fear reprisals if they go back.
A doctor who was waiting for her parole in Barbados through the CMPP said that if returned to Cuba, “the Ministry of Health would send you to work in the worst place, regardless of your scientific level. You will be under blackmail; you will be punished and they’ll check on you constantly. In fact, you and your children will be marked for the rest of your life”.
The Cuban government reiterated Thursday it will accept the return of those “professionals who abandoned their missions of collaboration” and it will offer them jobs in the public health system.
With the elimination of the CMPP, it is unclear if fear of reprisals will be reason enough to get asylum in the United States.
With the elimination of the CMPP, it is unclear if fear of reprisals will be reason enough to get asylum in the United States. Miami immigration attorney Wilfredo Allen believes those doctors could have a solid case, if they argue that they were subjected to “forced labor,” but a State Department source said that with the termination of the special admission program, the standards would be higher and are the same as for refugees around the world.
Hundreds of these Cubans are in temporary shelters in countries like Panama, Colombia or Mexico, either undocumented or with nearly expired transit permits. In such situation, Allen said, they should be considered as candidates for admission in the United States, especially if they have not been able to integrate to the third country or have not obtained asylum and are afraid to return to the island.
“Cubans stranded in Panama, for example, might request refugee status because they are in shelters for refugees and their situation is precarious,” he said.
Asked about those Cubans stranded in third countries and Cuba policy in general, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that the Trump administration was conducting “a review of all Cuba policies,” with a priority placed on human rights.
Nora Gámez Torres: @ngameztorres