U.S.-bound Illegal Migration Through Costa Rica: Cubans and More

By Kausha Luna, May 20, 2016

Last Thursday, the Institute of World Politics here in Washington hosted a talk by Costa Rica's ambassador to the United States, Roman Macaya. His comments on migration will be of interest to readers.

Ambassador Macaya began by identifying the migration flows through the region as an issue that can't be ignored – most recently, the increasing flow of Cuban nationals. According to Macaya, Costa Rica saw 2,500 Cubans go through its territory in 2013; the number increased to 5,200 in 2014, and to 22,000 in 2015. He noted that such an uptick in migration from a single country is a significant trend, particularly for a small country like Costa Rica, smaller than West Virginia and with a population of 4.8 million people.

The ambassador went on to describe the backlog of Cuban migrants in Costa Rica and Panama that resulted in a series of airlifts to the U.S.-Mexico border. (See here and here.)

Along with the increasing flow of Cubans, in the last year Costa Rica has also seen an upward trend in the arrival of "extra-continental" (African, Asian, and Middle Eastern) illegal aliens. Earlier this year, approximately 1,200 illegal aliens tried to burst through Costa Rica's southern border from Panama, and about 200 of them were from outside Latin America. Macaya noted that, "the challenge with these migrants is far superior than the issues with the Cubans, because with the Cubans at least once they reach the United States they can enter. With all these others – they cannot enter legally. So, there is no such thing as an agreement to airlift them or send them anywhere, because no one is going to agree to receive migrants if the country that's between your country and their destination country won't receive them. So, if the ultimate destination country won't receive them, which is the United States, then the whole chain gets locked up."

He continued, "These migrants carry no documents. So, when we detain them – and they're not passing through our check points, I mean, we happen to find them on a bus or a car that's coming through – they are relying 100 percent on human smugglers." Consequently, when authorities find these migrants, "there aren't any good options, because we can't identify them – they don't have an I.D. They claim to be of a certain nationality, but we can't really confirm that because there's no passport. And, the nationality where they claim to be from doesn't have an embassy or consulate in our country." The lack of documents makes it even more difficult to run reliable background checks, raising security concerns. The ambassador explained that if no red flags appear during the background check, the illegal alien is released, "but they are sort of on a parole." Thereafter, the migrants have to check back in with the authorities every two weeks, but this process "only works if they come back to sign." Moreover, a lot of the migrants get back in touch with their smugglers and continue to make their way north.

Macaya also suggested that the increasing flow of "extra-continental" migrants may be an overflow from what's happening in Europe, and that perhaps they are using Central America as a new route. Through interviews, the Costa Rican government has learned that some of these migrants are coming by sea, while others with more economic means are flying into South America. Then, they take the Central American "land bridge" all the way north to the United States. Moreover, the ambassador noted that approximately half of the female African migrants that they received last month were pregnant.

Macaya closed his remarks on migrants crossing through Costa Rica with the following observation: "they're heading one place, and that is the United Sates."

During the question-and-answer portion of the event, the ambassador added the following notable comments in relation to the U.S.-bound flows of illegal aliens:

  • "On these two issues, the interests of Costa Rica are aligned with the interests of the United States, as well as the interests of most of the countries along the way. Because, wherever we succeed in capturing drugs, or processing migrants, that's to the benefit of everyone to the north of us. And, wherever we fail, it's going to cost us; but, it's also going to cost everyone to the north of us."

  • "Well certainly that is the magnet. The U.S. as a country is a magnet; many people are coming even if they can't get in legally. But it is certainly compounded by having this magnet that says 'if you reach dry land and you put one foot on U.S. soil, you can stay.' Now, a lot of people think it takes an act of Congress to get rid of the law, it's going to be a Congressional battle; we're in the middle of an election, that's not realistic. But that's only the law component of this, the actual Cuban Adjustment Act. There is a parole component, which is when they arrive. The Cuban Adjustment Act enters into effect one year and one day after they've been 'paroled' for examination. So how do you stay in the United States for one year and one day, legally, so that you can...you can benefit from the Cuban Adjustment Act? That's where the parole examination period comes in. That is an executive authority. So that's something that the executive branch can change overnight. It does not require an act of Congress. You would still have the law, but it would be a law that has no effect because no one can stay here legally for enough time for the law to enter into effect. So, it comes down to an issue of political will...We'll have to see what happens after the elections. But, there's an executive component and then there's a legislative component to this magnet." (Emphasis added.)

  • "We were very thankful to both members of Congress [Texas representatives Henry Cuellar and Kay Granger] for their interest in what's happening in Costa Rica, and for taking the time to come down to understand the issues, and to see that it's not just Cubans that it's all these 'extra-continentals' that are also coming through."

  • "We've seen people from Ghana, Mali, Republic of Congo...Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq. We are seeing people from Nepal. Once again, claiming to be from these countries."