First Group of Stranded U.S.-bound Cubans Reaches Mexico

On Wednesday, the first group of 180 Cuban migrants flown out of Costa Rica reached Mexico. From there they will make their way north to the United States.

After Nicaragua closed its border with Costa Rica and refused passage to the islanders in November, Costa Rica set out to find an exit plan for approximately 8,000 Cubans who were on its territory. After several failed attempts, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and the International Organization of Migration (IOM), agreed to fly an initial group of the Cuban migrants to El Salvador, from where they would be bused through Guatemala and to the southern border of Mexico.

The first group of 180 Cuban migrants flew out of Costa Rica to El Salvador on Tuesday evening. Once in El Salvador, where they were greeted by the Foreign Minister, they were transferred to four buses and continued to and through Guatemala. According to Guatemala's General Director of Migration, Carlos Pac, the transfer of Cuban migrants happened without any inconveniences. This opinion was also shared by the ambassador of Costa Rica in El Salvador. The group of Cubans arrived in Mexico Wednesday afternoon at the Suchiate Bridge, a port of entry at the Guatemala-Mexico border. They were then transferred to Tapachula where they were given a 20-day ''safe-passage'' permit to move around the Mexican territory and make their way to north to the U.S. border, in order to take advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act and the "wet foot, dry-foot" policy that extends from it.

Costa Rica declared the "pilot" program a success during a press conference on Wednesday. Before more Cubans are flown out, Costa Rican officials will meet with Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico sometime next week to evaluate the program. The Costa Rican president and foreign minister traveled to Guatemala today for the inauguration of President Jimmy Morales. They were expected to meet with the new government head to discuss his personal position on the current situation. Nevertheless, Costa Rica's Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez is optimistic that the results of both meetings will allow the transfer process to continue. If this is the case, Gonzalez noted the possibility that as many as two additional flights would start leaving daily from airports in the towns of Liberia and Alajuela. Additionally, if the initial transfer receives positive reviews, Gonzalez said that the subsequent flights would give priority to family units, the elderly, and those with handicaps – if they have the appropriate transit papers and funds to pay for the travel expenses.

Foreign Minister Gonzalez reiterated that Costa Rica cannot and will not take on any of the travel expenses. However, Gonzalez said that the Costa Rican Ambassador to the United States was speaking to Cuban-American leaders in the U.S. to raise funds for those who lacked the means to pay for the transfer from Costa Rica to Mexico. Similarly, there is still not a resolution for about 1,000 Cubans in Panama – stranded there after Costa Rica suspended the granting of temporary visas to Cubans. Foreign Minister Gonzales, according to a recording of Wednesday's press conference, said Costa Rica would be willing to help Panama create a plan for the Cubans in Panamanian territory.

Despite the initial flight and the impending transfer of thousands more Cubans, the Obama administration remains unresponsive, merely reemphasizing that there are no plans to change U.S. immigration policies towards Cubans. However, the president does have options besides welcoming the Cubans with open arms or waiting for Congress to change the law. As my colleague Dan Cadman recently explained, 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 Cuban Adjustment Act do not apply and they could be repatriated if they couldn't demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution.

In other Cuban news, on Tuesday U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a White House hopeful, introduced the "Cuban Immigrant Work Opportunity Act of 2016," companion legislation to H.R. 4247, sponsored in the House by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.). The legislation would distinguish Cubans fleeing political persecution from ordinary Cuban immigrants for purposes of welfare eligibility, thus preventing the non-refugees from collecting welfare under the more-generous rules that apply to refugees. It would also seek to limit U.S. welfare payments to people actually living in Cuba, a problem exposed by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel earlier this year.

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