Newlyweds are separated at U.S.-Mexico border by disparate immigration laws

Wedding picture of Heriberto Herrera and Olga Palacios (center) along with other couples during a ceremony in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Wedding picture of Heriberto Herrera and Olga Palacios (center) along with other couples during a ceremony in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Courtesy

Heriberto Herrera, a Cuban migrant, arrived at the U.S. border with his Ecuadorean wife earlier this month and asked to be admitted under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

Herrera, 43, had no trouble entering the United States — but his wife of three months was detained by American immigration officials who were suspicious about the legitimacy of the marriage.

The arrest of Olga Palacios, 45, is just the latest example of new hurdles that Cuban migrants are facing in reaching the United States.

In June, a group of Cubans in the U.S. Virgin Islands complained that immigration officials refused to provide parole documents that would have enabled them to travel to Miami.

In August, Cuban doctors in Colombia reported unusual delays in obtaining U.S. visas despite the availability of an official American program to encourage Cuban medical personnel deployed abroad to defect and flee to the United States.

And in recent days, Costa Rica temporarily closed its borders to Cuban migrants who were part of a growing exodus headed to the United States. Nicaragua followed suit, stranding hundreds of Cubans at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border.

While Cuban migrants seek to reach the United States by air, sea and land, the majority come across the Mexican border — many starting in Ecuador, Panama or Central American countries.

At least 30,966 Cuban migrants crossed the border from Mexico during fiscal year 2015, which ran from Oct. 1, 2014, to Sept. 30, 2015. It was the largest annual number of border arrivals in 10 years.

The arrival of Cuban immigrants in the United States has been steadily increasing since the restoration of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations in December. The announcement increased fears in Cuba that eventually the Cuban Adjustment Act would be abolished.

Under the Act, non-Cuban spouses of Cuban migrants are entitled to adjust their immigration status to residency as long as they have been paroled into the United States. Granting a parole, however, is at the discretion of the immigration officer handling the case.

Immigration officials at the border did not respond to email and telephone messages from el Nuevo Herald, but immigration attorneys in South Florida said the detention and deportation of foreign nationals married to Cuban migrants happens periodically at the border.

In some cases, the non-Cuban spouse is simply denied entry and sent back to his or her homeland, the attorneys said.

“I have seen cases in which the Spanish wives or husbands of Cubans are simply sent back to Spain,” said Miami immigration attorney Wilfredo Allen. “It happens periodically.”

Eduardo Soto, a Coral Gables immigration attorney, said that Palacios’ detention may indicate that she will eventually be released.

“This individual should consider herself fortunate because she was not immediately returned to the country from where she came,” said Soto. “Admission into the United States is discretionary.”

In a telephone interview from the Mexican border near McAllen, where the couple arrived on Nov. 11, Herrera told his story.

A native of the central Cuban city of Sancti Spiritus, Herrera flew to Ecuador in March specifically to marry Palacios, with whom he had had a long-distance romance, he said.

“We knew of each other because we both belong to Baptist churches that have links to each other,” said Herrera.

Herrera and Palacios got married in a civil ceremony in July. A religious wedding followed in August, he said.

The couple decided to move to the United States because Herrera could not find a job in Ecuador and an older brother had already settled in Miami.

In early November, the couple began their journey to the U.S. border.

They flew from Ecuador to Nicaragua first. Then, they caught buses and taxis to Honduras and Guatemala.

After crossing the border into Mexico, they boarded a plane to Mexico City and then another to the U.S. border.

On Nov. 11, they walked across the border from Reynosa to McAllen, Texas, he said.

Like tens of thousands of other Cubans before him, Herrera was paroled in by American immigration officers.

But his wife was sent to a detention center in San Antonio, Texas, Herrera said.

“The officers told me that since we had been married for only three months, we could have arranged the marriage just to come here,” he said. “They kept her four hours in an office and then they took her to the detention center.”

Alfonso Chardy: 305-376-3435, @AlfonsoChardy

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