About 20 Cubans who arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands on a migrant boat two months ago have been unable to travel to South Florida because immigration authorities refuse to grant them paroles, according to a member of the group.
The paroles are key because the Cuban migrants need them to be formally admitted into the United States under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
U.S. officials in the Virgin Islands have delayed delivery of the parole documents until the Cuban migrants agree to assist in a migrant smuggling investigation, providing information about the boat’s captain and the journey, according to the Cuban who spoke to el Nuevo Herald by phone from St. Thomas. He did not want his name published.
“It’s blackmail,” the Cuban said, referring to the U.S. officials’ pressure tactics.
The case has opened a window into a little-known escape route for Cuban migrants.
Cubans have been able to get tourist visas for St. Lucia, a nation of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean, and have been using the island as a jumping-off point for illegal migrant boat trips to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Members of the group that is now delayed in St. Thomas, part of the USVI, left Cuba separately for St. Lucia, and from there boarded a boat bound for U.S. territory.
Under the current wet foot/dry foot policy, Cubans who reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay, while those intercepted at sea are generally returned to Cuba.
Delays in parole deliveries have been reported before in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But previously, U.S. officials have blamed the delays on limited staff.
Thirty-eight Cuban migrants who had been picked up near the Virgin Islands in April were denied repatriation by Cuba after officials there learned they had been sailing toward St. Lucia, not the U.S. mainland. After a few days, the Cuban government relented, and the Coast Guard finally was able to return the Cubans to the island under the wet foot/dry foot policy.
After discovering the St. Lucia route, U.S. authorities began an investigation with a view to disrupting migrant smuggling operations.
The Cuban who described the situation involving the 20 migrants in St. Thomas said U.S. immigration officials want witnesses to implicate the boat captain in order to prosecute him.
“We told them that we do not have a clear recollection of what happened and therefore we cannot finger anyone,” the Cuban said. “It was then that they began delaying the delivery of the paroles to us.”
The Cuban said that in some cases, immigration officials had shown some of the members of the group parole documents with their names already filled in but told them they would not be delivered until they agreed to testify against the boat captain.
The Cuban who spoke to el Nuevo Herald said immigration authorities delivered five paroles late Thursday, but that the majority of group members still had not received them.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) declined to comment.
The majority of Cuban migrants now arrive in the United States via the Mexican border. More than 13,100 Cuban migrants have crossed the border from Mexico since Oct. 1, 2014.
Between Oct. 1, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2014, at least 17,459 Cuban migrants crossed into the United States from Mexico.
At least 1,469 Cuban migrants have been interdicted at sea since Oct. 1.