On Wednesday, the Costa Rican government announced the first group of U.S.-bound Cuban migrants will be flown to El Salvador on January 12, allowing them to continue their journey north.
According to an agreement between Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and the International Organization of Migration (IOM), the approximately 8,000 Cubans – stranded in Costa Rica after Nicaragua refused to let them pass – will be flown to El Salvador and bused through Guatemala and to Mexico. Once in Mexico, they will have to make their own way to the Rio Grande. The islanders are expected to cover the costs of the transfer.
Originally, the government had announced that families would be given priority. However, citing security concerns, the first group, totaling 180 people, will not include children or family units. During Wednesday's press conference, Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez stressed that the first transfer is a "test flight" and would not guarantee any additional flights until regional leaders meet to assess its success sometime before January 18.
The first group Cubans will be chosen using the following guidelines: the person may actually be located (any have left the shelters); date of arrival, according to the issue date their immigration visa; and ability to pay the cost of the transfer. For individuals of the ages 13 and above, staying in the shelters near the Costa Rican town of Liberia, the transfer cost is $555. This will cover transportation to the airport; a chartered flight with Avianca airlines to El Salvador; exit taxes for Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala; non-stop bus transportation, with meals, through Guatemala and into Mexico; and health insurance. For those traveling from the southern region of the country, the cost will be $570. Children between the ages of two and 12 will have to pay $350.
In response to questions regarding plans for Cuban migrants who cannot pay the transfer costs, Costa Rica's Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez said the current plan is in place because the Cuban migrants repeatedly said they could pay. Thus, if this first flight is successful and the plan is extended beyond the initial 180 migrants, another exit plan will have to be put in place for those who cannot pay. He added that the islanders have made it clear that they do not have then intention of staying in any of Central American countries; as such, they have been given an avenue by which to leave the country – but beyond that no more can be done.
Once in Mexico the Cuban migrants will be granted a 20-day temporary transit visa at no cost. But once they are in Mexico they will have to get to the U.S. border on their own, said IOM's Costa Rica director, Roland de Wilde. He added that, "It's important to remember that these migrants left their country voluntarily...In Mexico they will surely find the transportation options that they want. I understand there are many options in Mexico."
Additionally, the government of Costa Rica noted that, "none of the governments of the countries involved or international organizations will bear the costs of relocating the migrants; on the contrary, payment for the service is a private transaction between the parties. The Cubans are voluntary economic migrants and are in Costa Rica legally. Reestablishing the possibility to exit allows them to leave the country as they had planned and by their own means."
Guatemala has also previously commented on the Cubans' migratory conditions: "Guatemala believes that [this] is not a humanitarian situation, because these people are not political refugees, they have not been affected by a war, or natural disasters. Likewise, [Guatemala] believes that migration is a human right, but the characteristics of the Cuban migration are economic and/or for family unification, as is Guatemalan migration to the United States."
As indicated by the long title of the Cuban Adjustment Act ("An Act to adjust the status of Cuban refugees to that of lawful permanent residents of the United States "), the CAA was not intended for economic migrants. Nevertheless, both the Cuban migrants and the Central American countries have predicated the success of their plans upon the CAA and the "wet-foot/dry-foot" policy that stems from it. Why should they not? Over the years the U.S. has allowed Cubans to repeatedly and systematically abuse the CAC. Despite this ongoing abuse and the impending arrival of the latest group of Cuban, the Obama administration has said it has no intentions of changing its procedures, even though the president has the legal authority to prevent the islanders from taking benefitting from the CAA , as my colleague Dan Cadman recently explained. (In short, automatic residency is only available to those Cuban illegal aliens who are paroled into the U.S.; if they're kept in detention, the provisions of the CAA do not apply.)
During yesterday's White House press briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest reemphasized the administration's refusal to keep the Cubans out. The reporter's question was as follows:
There are thousands of Cuban migrants in Central America who appear to be on the verge of getting on a Costa Rican plane, if I'm not mistaken, that will take them to the Mexican-El Salvadoran border, where those Cuban migrants are hoping to travel to the U.S. border for refugee status. I guess, first of all, is the administration monitoring this? What does the administration plan to do when they get there? And with the opening of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, is there any chance that this refugee status issue might change, that the administration may try to adjust that status before the president leaves office?
Mr. Earnest responded:
...we are aware of the reports that you're citing. I can tell you that some of the discussions that you referred to about the movement of these individuals is not something that the United States has been a part of, and we're certainly not a part of efforts to facilitate the movement or arrival of Cuban migrants into the United States.
When asked if the Cuban migrants would be able to cross the border and apply for refugee status, Earnest said:
Presumably, they could attempt to do that. There is a migratory framework in place for processing Cuban migrants that arrive on American soil. And again, that process is unique to Cuban migrants because of the unique political situation in their home country. And there's a longstanding policy in place that guides this processing, and there are no plans at this point to change that policy. [Emphasis added.]