Today, the first group of 238 Cuban migrants airlifted from Panama reached El Paso, Texas.
On Monday, the government of Panama initiated the airlift of about 4,000 U.S.-bound Cubans stranded in Panama to Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city opposite El Paso.
Earlier this year, Panama transferred about 1,300 islanders to the U.S.-Mexico border, after Nicaragua and then Costa Rica closed their borders to Cuban migrants without visas passing through on their way north. However, after the airlift was complete, Cuban illegal aliens continued to arrive at the Panama-Costa Rica border.
This second transfer is happening even though the government of Mexico had previously stated that it would not accept another airlift, noting it would confuse the message of promoting safe and orderly migration. According to a press release by the Panamanian government, the latest airlift is being carried out "with the support of the Government of the United Mexican States, as an exceptional, limited solution and, for the last time, to ensure smooth, orderly, and safe transit of such migrants, with observance of respect for their human rights." A joint press release by the Mexican Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs stated that, "Mexico has decided to continue with the exceptional support provided in previous weeks," and, "At the same time, both countries agreed to launch a series of actions to prevent and discourage new flows."
The government of Panama also announced that it has temporarily closed its border with Colombia in order to reduce the flow of "irregular migration" that affects the region. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said, "We have taken the difficult decision to close the border with Colombia to confront the passage of irregular migrants. We have to close the border to this irregular flow." He added, "We will not allow the presence of people without immigration status. Everyone in our country should have immigration status. We will give humanitarian treatment, and in two or three weeks the immigration system will change.”
In addition to the thousands of Cubans, hundreds of U.S.-bound African illegal aliens have also been stranded at the Panama-Costa Rica border. The Costa Rican authorities have reported the presence of people of 14 different nationalities at that border, including Haitians and Brazilians.
Regarding the reception of the Cuban illegals at the U.S. border, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection El Paso Field Office said in an e-mail:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is prepared to process the expected increase in Cubans applying for admission at El Paso area ports of entry. CBP officers will process Cuban nationals in accordance with established procedures as expeditiously as possible while maintaining requirements and standards for individuals in our care. CBP continues to work with our federal, state and local partners to minimize the impact to everyday trade and travel.
The El Paso Field Office also noted that there has been daily communication between the El Paso Port of Entry (POE) and Mexico's National Institute for Migration (INM) regarding the airlift, and the two agencies will collaborate to expedite the processing of Cuban nationals at the POE.
Additionally, the El Paso Field Office described CBP Cuban processing as follows:
- Cuban citizens presents themselves for admission at a port of entry. They must provide proof of their Cuban citizenship, such as a passport or birth certificate. The burden of proof rests on the Cubans to prove their citizenship.
- Once citizenship is established, CBP officers ask if they are members of the Cuban regime or work for the Cuban government, among other questions.
- CBP officers next take fingerprint scans and check against CBP's national law enforcement databases. If no derogatory information is returned, the process continues.
- At the conclusion of the interview process, if no derogatory information is returned – such as criminal or existing U.S. immigration history or otherwise disqualifying factors like membership in Castro regime or use of fraudulent documents – the person is processed for parole.
- The CBP officer issues the traveler an I-94 parole document with the subject's temporary alien number written on the back. The parole document is valid for two years. (One year after inspection and admission to the U.S., Cubans paroled into the U.S. may apply for adjustment of status under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 in order to receive permanent U.S. residency – a green card).
- The entire process takes approximately one hour per person.
During a phone conversation, Alejandro Ruiz, the founder of Cubanos en Libertad, said he has had contact with many of the new Cuban arrivals. They informed him that they arrived to El Paso, through Ciudad Juarez, without any difficulty. Cubanos en Libertad is a non-profit organization based out of Laredo, Texas, that helps Cuban migrants get access to benefits granted to them by the Cuban Adjustment Act. Ruiz said that as far as he knows there is not a comparable organization in El Paso, because Cubans usually don't usually cross through there – the majority of Cubans without visas cross through the Laredo Port of Entry. (Mr. Ruiz also said that he has no plans of extending his services to El Paso.) Ruiz explained that the Cubans that just arrived in El Paso are either picked up by family members or have a plane ticket to fly to their families. He also informed me that La Cubanisima USA, a Laredo-based private transportation company that offers Cubans bus rides to Florida, is headed to El Paso tonight.
Mr. Ruiz and I are scheduled to talk tomorrow so he can give me an update on the situation in El Paso.