The number of undocumented Cubans intercepted in Mexico on their way to the U.S. border has more than doubled in the eight months since Havana eased its migration controls, according to Mexican government figures.
The Interior Ministry numbers were the latest indication of the greatly increased flow of Cubans, both undocumented and legal, through Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean over the past year.
Most, if not all of the Cubans, are heading to the United States, where they are protected from deportation to Cuba, can receive benefits as refugees and qualify for permanent U.S. residency after one year and one day.
Interdictions in Mexico of undocumented Cubans totaled 2,300 from January to August of this year, compared to 994 in the same period in 2012, according to the Interior Ministry.
The number does not include those who make it to the border undetected by Mexican authorities. That figure has been estimated at well over 13,000 for the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30.
Legal air arrivals to Mexico by Cubans with tourist or migrant visas also rose from 30,750 in the first eight months of 2012 to 33,017 in the same period this year, according to Mexican government figures.
Those figures represent an increase of 2,237 arrivals, or 7.2 percent, although Mexican officials noted that the same person could have made several entries.
Santiago Alpizar, a Miami immigration lawyer, said many more Cubans have left the island in recent months, both because of Cuba’s moribund economy and President Raúl Castro’s decision to ease migration controls on Jan. 14.
The January changes eliminated the need for Cuban government exit permits, allowed more minors to travel abroad and extended from 11 to 24 months the time that Cubans can stay outside their country without losing their residency and benefits such as free healthcare.
Cubans who arrive in the United States can now obtain permanent U.S. residency after 366 days under the Cuban Adjustment Act and then return to the island to retain their residency there. They can then travel at will between the two countries.
Thousands of Cubans arrive each year via the Mexico-U.S. border because it is the easiest way of obtaining entry under Washington’s “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy. Those who set foot on U.S. territory get to stay, but most of those interdicted at sea are returned.
In an island where personal travel abroad was rare before Jan. 14, the migration reforms were one of the most popular measures adopted by Castro since he officially succeeded ailing brother Fidel in 2008.
But the reforms also have caused new troubles for some of the undocumented Cubans intercepted in Mexico, said Eduardo Matias Lopez, a Cuba-born immigration lawyer in Mexico City.
Under a long-standing Mexico-Cuba agreement, Havana requires the return to the island of any citizen who remains a legal resident of Cuba, Lopez told El Nuevo Herald Thursday.
Cubans who have been out of the island for less than two years and are intercepted in Mexico are therefore paying bribes of $5,000 to $10,000 to win their release from migration detention centers, according to Lopez.
Those who have been out of Cuba for more than two years and are intercepted can wait the legal maximum of 60 days in a detention center, the lawyer said. They are then freed with a document giving them 15 days to leave Mexico — time enough to reach the border.
If they don’t want to wait the 60 days, Lopez added, they can pay fines of about $500 — generally with a bribe added to the fine — to obtain documents giving them the 15 days to leave or 30 days to start the process of legalizing their stay in Mexico.