Costa Rica says its doors are closed to Cubans

Costa Rica has issued a warning to the new wave of undocumented Cuban migrants hoping to travel by land from Ecuador to Central America and eventually the United States: they will not pass.

Foreign Minister Manuel González Sanz told el Nuevo Herald that Costa Rica was already worn down by its handling of the previous wave of 7,800 Cubans who were detained or stranded here from November of 2015 until March.

“I want to make absolutely clear, to all the (Cuban) migrants who are coming and those already in Panama, that Costa Rica cannot and will not receive them,” González said. The country “will make use of all domestic and international measures at its disposal to address this situation, if we face something similar to what we faced from November to March.”

He added that waves of undocumented Cuban migrants “will continue as long as the U.S. law that favors Cuban migration, the well-known Cuban Adjustment Act, continues,” and indicated that there's a profound discomfort in the region with the Act.

The issue of Cuban migration “should be part of the bilateral relations between Cuba and the United States, but the reality is that the countries from Ecuador to Mexico, we are the ones caught in the middle and we are the ones suffering the consequences of laws that incite that migration,” the minister said.

The Adjustment Act gives Cuban migrants many benefits not available to other undocumented migrants, such as U.S. residence after 366 days in the United States. Undocumented Cubans who reach U.S. territory are not deported to the island under the U.S. government policy known as “wet-foot/dry-foot.”

“Costa Rica already gave everything it could give, did more than it was required to do, and we are definitely not in a position to confront — not as part of a group and certainly not alone, as we did in the past — a situation similar to what the country experienced,” he added.

The country's government said repeatedly in recent months that any Cubans who enter the country without visas may be deported to Cuba — an option that appears to remain on the table even though the migrants could challenge it in the courts here.

Emergency meeting

The government has called a meeting Tuesday in this capital city of migration and diplomatic officials from the United States, Mexico, Central America, Cuba, Colombia and Ecuador to tackle the threat of a renewed migration crisis.

Panamanian migration authorities reported that another 2,723 Cubans were detained there as of April 6. Adding to the threat of a new crisis has been the large number of migrants from Africa and Asia who travel to South America to join the stream of undocumented migrants heading to the United States.

“If there is not a coordinated, structural approach by all the countries involved, we will continue to have these events affecting countries individually,” he added. “But individual action has proven to be too fragile for one country to take on a problem of such proportions.”

The previous crisis — the worst Cuban migration crisis in Central America since Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959 — started in mid-November when Costa Rica cracked down on a people-smuggling ring. Left without guides or contacts, undocumented Cubans started to bunch up at the Costa Rican borders with Panama and Nicaragua.

Panama and Costa Rica had to open temporary shelters to care for the detained or stranded Cuban migrants, which eventually totaled more than 9,500. The Costa Rican government issued temporary transit visas to Cubans arriving in November, but on Dec. 18 it also decided to close its border with Panama.

The crisis was finally resolved with an airlift that flew thousands of Cubans from Costa Rica and Panama to El Salvador and Mexico.

The number of Cuban migrants moving through Central America has been increasing rapidly since 2008, when Ecuador lifted its visa requirement for Cubans. Ecuador reimposed its visa requirement in December to try to contain the flow of Cubans.

Costa Rican authorities already have warned that the flow is growing with the help of coyotes — people smugglers — who charge undocumented Cubans up to $15,000 to take them from Ecuador to the Mexican border with the United States.

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