More than 37,000 Cubans face deportation orders

A crew member of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mohawk throws a lifejacket to a rafter who jumped into the sea south of Key West in this file photo.
A crew member of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mohawk throws a lifejacket to a rafter who jumped into the sea south of Key West in this file photo. USCG Courtesy

Some arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border only a few hours after the sudden change in immigration policy on Jan. 12. Others have been in the United States since much earlier. The majority face possible deportation.

According to official figures, the number of Cubans with final orders of deportation has increased this year. Through Dec. 9, there were 37,218 facing final deportation orders.

Meanwhile, the number of Cuban migrants currently in detention centers now exceeds 1,600.

“As of December 9, 2017, there were 1,686 Cuban nationals in ICE detention,” Brendan Raedy, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, stated in an email.

That is an increase from the 1,453 Cubans who were in detention as of Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ended.

Detention or deportation is the new reality for most Cubans who try to enter the United States without visas, following the elimination of a policy known as “wet foot, dry foot” under former President Barack Obama. Announced simultaneously by the U.S. and Cuban governments, the policy change halted special entry permits known as “parole” given to Cubans who managed to make it onto U.S. soil by land, air or sea.

Yuniesky Marcos Roque and his son Kevin were the last Cubans allowed through the U.S. Border station in Laredo, Texas on Thurs., Jan. 12, 2017.

Effective Jan. 12, undocumented Cubans lost their special status and can only gain entry if they request asylum, an option that takes them directly to a detention center for immigrants. The likelihood of being granted asylum is slim and most end up joining the long list of “deportable aliens.”

The Cuban government has promised to receive those who arrived after Jan. 12. But the fate of those who had previous orders of deportation is more uncertain. Cuba said it would analyze each case and focus on those who have been deemed as “priority for return.” In fiscal year 2017, the U.S. deported 160 Cubans, but the ICE spokesman said it would be difficult to determine whether the deportees arrived before or after the policy change.

Despite the migration accords, the United States regards Cuba as a “recalcitrant” country that refuses to accept its nationals back. During recent migration talks in Washington, the U.S. delegation raised the need for increased Cuban cooperation in the return of Cubans with final orders of removal from the United States.

The new policy has reduced by 64 percent the irregular immigration of Cubans arriving in the U.S., according to the State Department.

It has also drastically reduced the number of those attempting to arrive by sea — although attempts by Cubans to cross the Straits of Florida in flimsy vessels or via organized smuggling trips continues albeit in much lower numbers.

In fiscal year 2017, the Coast Guard intercepted 1,468 Cubans at sea, compared to 5,396 in fiscal year 2016.

Perhaps more illustrative of the decrease in migration attempts by sea are figures for the current fiscal year 2018, which began on Oct. 1. Through Monday, the Coast Guard intercepted 44 Cubans.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries have taken a toll after the hardened rhetoric and new restrictive measures taken by President Donald Trump since he took office on Jan. 20. Several bilateral meetings have been suspended, Josefina Vidal, the main negotiator with the United States in the Cuban foreign ministry, said at an event earlier this week.

However, Vidal highlighted the end of the policy of granting parole as one of the achievements of the process for normalizing relations under the former Obama administration.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres