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Why Are Cuban Refugees Coming to Casa Juan Diego and Catholic Charities in Houston?

For more and more new Cuban refugees, the perilous journey to the U.S. is coming to an official end at Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.  Over the past ten months, the agency’s midtown office has brimmed with scores of bedraggled immigrants, many having just made the 2,400-mile journey from Ecuador by any means available, including train, horseback, even canoe.

They await a promised toehold into American society extended by the federal government in the form of temporary rental and cash assistance, and other benefits and legal services offered to refugees.

Peter Stranges, supervisor for Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement programs in Houston, said the wave of Cuban immigrants to the agency is unprecedented, representing a 100 percent increase since May.  At first, it took his staff completely by     surprise.

“Typically, we’d see just two to four cases a week, but since May we’ve been seeing dozens and we’ve had weeks where we’ve had upwards of 60 new refugees in a week,” Stranges said.  “It’s been a real challenge for our staff to handle this surge.”

Often referred by Catholic Charities, dozens have rung the doorbell at Casa Juan Diego for refuge after sleeping on bus terminal floors or outdoors, sometimes with infants and small children in their arms.

“Cubans come with no advance notice. They just show up at our office after crossing the border often with just the clothes they are wearing and their immigration document, and without a friend or a relative’s sofa to crash on,” Stranges said.

For these immigrants facing a basic needs crisis, Casa Juan Diego is playing a huge role in preventing them from becoming homeless and lending a hand through their transition, he said.

Houston, Stranges specul-ated, has become a destination for Cuban refugees making the journey by land to “la Yuma” – the Cuban nickname for the United States – mainly via word of mouth.

Often traveling as families or in small groups, the refugees become acquainted in immigrant shelters in Central America and during weeks-long internments in Mexican detention facilities. They hear that “la Iglesia” in Houston is among the quickest in enrolling new refugees in social services programs, Cuban refugees at Casa Juan Diego said. That’s where many also say they learn of Casa Juan Diego.

A big draw is also Houston’s international status as a recession-hardy boomtown, with its affordable cost of living and robust job market. Many refugees said that is one of the main reasons they are no longer interested in settling in Miami, despite strong cultural and family ties.

Though Cubans are arriving directly from the U.S.-Mexico border, the springboard for immigration to the U.S.  now largely originates in Ecuador. South Florida lies just 90 miles north of the Cuban coast, but the passage is fraught and interdiction rates are high. Now, more than 90 percent of Cubans entering the U.S. do so by land.

And Ecuador is the easiest way in. In 2008, the Ecuadoran government under President Rafael Correa repealed its visa requirements for many countries, including Cuba, prompting thousands to flee the island’s deteriorating economy and repressive government.

The reason behind the most recent exodus of Cubans from Ecuador is more complex.  Cuban refugees at Casa Juan Diego have cited xenophobic hostility from Ecuadoran citizens, the lack of opportunities, and changes in Cuban customs law curbing the amount of goods Cubans can bring from Ecuador to sell on the informal market.  They also say the Ecuadoran government has cracked down on sham marriages with Ecuadorians, which had become a cottage industry in Quito, that were used by Cubans to obtain Ecuadoran citizenship.

The principle driver, however, is changes to a Cuban law announced last October that extended from 11 months to 2 years the time a Cuban can reside outside of the Communist country before being stripped of his or her benefits as a citizen— property, health care, edu-cation, etc.   Losing one’s benefits precludes deporta-tion back to the island.

Many Cubans in Ecuador who have lost their rights and outstayed their tourist visas live in an immigration limbo. They are unable to return to their homeland and yet there is no path to Ecuadoran citizenship. This is another reason many are immigrating to the U.S.

While the new law also eliminated the long-reviled requirement for exit visas for Cubans wishing to travel, the extended time frame for losing one’s citizenship rights complicated plans of immigrants hoping to avoid deportation, particularly in Mexico.

Statistics from the Mexican government showed a 400 percent increase in detentions of Cubans at Mexico’s border with Guatemala last year compared to the year before, according to news reports.

The “Ley de 14,” so-called because it went into effect Jan. 14, prompted many new Cuban immigrants to leave Ecuador immediately for the U.S. to avoid having to wait out another year in Ecuador. Many arrive in Ecuador with plans to work and save for the passage to the U.S.

Casa Juan Diego guest Celia Martí said Cubans had anticipated the changes to the travel and citizenship laws long before their official announcement, igniting the early summer exodus.

Stranges said he didn’t anticipate the number of Cubans to decline signifycantly any time soon.

In the meantime, he said the influx had forced the refugee services staff to triage immigrants based on their immediate situation. The agency has also sought the help of volunteers and local parishes to help meet the many needs of families just starting out. “We’re working much more closely with the community and local parishes than ever before,” Stranges said.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, March-April 2013