Some 45,000 Cubans are expected to move by bus, boat, taxi and on foot from Ecuador and other South and Central American countries to the Texas and California borders this year. Thousands got stuck trying to cross Costa Rica into Nicaragua in recent weeks.
One year after U.S. and Mexican authorities were almost overwhelmed by an unprecedented wave of undocumented Central American attempting to reach the U.S. through Mexico, migration in the region appears to have taken a new and somewhat unusual turn.
In recent weeks, migrants from countries of origin rarely seen around here before – such as Syria, India and Cuba – have been taking the long route to the United States from South and Central America and through Mexico.
These new migrants also appear to be taking a different approach to reaching the U.S. than their Central American counterparts. Whereas the latter mostly travel by themselves, braving accidents, organized crime and corrupt law enforcement officials, the new group more often relies on human traffickers – often paying them large sums of money to guarantee a safe trip.
Last weekend, five Syrian refugees turned themselves in to the Border Patrol in Laredo, Texas, only days after six Syrians were detained in Honduras and Costa Rica with stolen Greek passports. All of them were apparently on their way to the U.S. to seek asylum there.
Meanwhile, hundreds of undocumented Cubans have been crossing the porous border between Mexico and the United States in recent weeks. According to U.S. authorities, the number of Cubans requesting asylum in Laredo alone has jumped 80 percent compared to last year, to almost 30,000. A couple of thousand of Cubans have been stuck on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua for nearly a week, as the latter's government refuses to let them enter.
And last Friday, a Guatemalan woman pleaded guilty in Texas to human-trafficking charges of helping smuggle migrants from India via South and Central America across the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Twenty years ago, we only saw Guatemalans passing the southern border, but that has changed. We now see migrants from all over the world,” Olga Sánchez, the founder of the Jesus the Good Shepherd shelter for migrants in Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas, told Fox News Latino. “In recent years, I've seen people from Africa, India, China and most of all Cuba.”
Migrants from those parts of the world are believed to be attracted by the increasingly sophisticated network of human smugglers operating in South and Central America and Mexico who, for a hefty sum, provide safe passage.
With the help of a "coyote," as the smugglers are widely known, they avoid many of the perils that Central American migrants usually face in Mexico: running into gangs of kidnappers, facing extortion and human rights abuses at the hands of police and government officials, as well as falling victim to accidents while hitching a ride on the notorious "La Bestia" freight train.
With the recent terror attacks in Paris, the detention of a handful of Syrians on both sides of the border with Mexico has stirred security concerns. Commentators fear that terrorists could attempt to enter the U.S. by travelling through Central America and Mexico.
But none of the recently arrested Syrians seems to have had any such intentions. The ones arrested in Honduras and Costa Rica were traveling on stolen Greek passports, but they appear to have been asylum seekers, as were the Syrians detained in Laredo.
Moreover, activists running shelters in southern Mexico told FNL that the number of Middle Eastern refugees in the country, especially compared to the hundreds of thousands who have fled to the European Union in recent months, is still just a trickle.
“We've had several Africans and a man from Morocco stay at our shelter over the past few weeks,” Ramón Márquez, a coordinator at the La 72 shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, told FNL. “But no one from the Middle East." He added that he thought it would be unlikely that Syrian migrants would be traveling through Mexico by themselves. "They would most likely pay human traffickers to guide them north.”
The recent wave of Cuban migrants travelling through Mexico and Central America, on the other hand, are taking the land route to the U.S. in large numbers, despite having to travel 5,000 miles and cross eight borders before arriving in lieu of taking a 90-mile boat trip.
The trip takes them to Ecuador, the only country in the region to which Cubans can travel without a visa, and then Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to reach the United States. Cuban migrants making the trip told Costa Rica's La Nación newspaper they pay human traffickers anywhere between $7.000 and $10.000 to get them to American soil.
The sudden surge in Cuban travellers has caused tensions between the Central American countries. Whereas Mexico provides the majority of undocumented Cubans temporary travel permits and the U.S. allows them residency once they cross the border thanks to the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, both Panama and Nicaragua have refused to let in a large group of Cubans currently stuck in Costa Rica. Nicaraguan soldiers are blocking Cubans from entering the country, leaving more than 2.000 of them stranded at the border.
But even as Central America scrambles to find a solution to the crisis, activists in Mexico expect the flow will not diminish any time soon.
“There are already many Cubans in Guatemala and southern Mexico travelling north,” Jesus the Good Shepherd's Sánchez told FNL. “They are far less visible than Central American migrants, mostly because they use human traffickers, but I don't believe they their numbers will drop any time soon.”
Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen