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Cubans in Tapachula: to stay or to keep going, that is the question

Not all Cuban emigrants reach the U.S. border, and they each have their reasons. DIARIO DE CUBA explores them in the latest in this series on emigration.

Ciudad de México
A business in Tapachula, Mexico.
A business in Tapachula, Mexico. Diario de Cuba

Tapachula, and Mexico in general, are, generally speaking, junctions for Cuban and Central American migrants on their way north. However, they often become final destinations. That "American dream" they all pursued at first sometimes ends up evaporating, as they choose to settle down in Aztec territory. Here, at least, a common language unites them all.

Crossing into the U.S., the most difficult challenge

The goal is just one step away from the northern border, yet crossing into the United States is one of the most daunting challenges for the Cuban migrant. Between Washington's anti-immigration policies and the protracted acceptance process, Cubans can spend a long time lingering in Mexico's northern states.

The danger of Mexico's northern border lies precisely in the fact that it is not just the last hurdle for migrants, but for drug trafficking networks too.  According to the latest Peace Index published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, 3 of the Mexican states bordering the U.S. are among the 11 most violent in the country.

The state of Baja California, for example, closed out 2020 with more than 2,185 homicides and 642 forced disappearances recorded. The impunity rate for criminals was also high, with 24.9% of those arrested never being sentenced. Added to all this, at least for the moment, is the deadly danger of Covid-19.

"Here the best thing to do is to sit tight and wait. That’s hard, because you have to get a job and make a living. But in these areas there’s a lot of violence, and you can't mess around. With the narcos, kidnappers and all those people, you can't risk it," says Rodrigo, who currently works at a small taco stand in Chihuahua, where he is waiting for a permit to enter the United States.

Obtaining residency in Mexico, a safe bet

"I was thinking about Spain, then the United States, but right now I think Mexico would be best. In the end, since we’re the kind of people who have no one there to help us, it’s better for us to stay here," Javier confesses. He and his wife have decided to head for Cancun, in the state of Quintana Roo, where they have heard that there is a strong Cuban community.

"Besides, Cancun is close to Cuba. There's tourism, there's work, you can buy stuff and sell it in Cuba," he continues.

The migration statistics published by the Mexican Ministry of the Interior bear Javier out. Over the last two years the vast majority of Cubans who have obtained a migratory status other than "Temporary Visitor for Humanitarian Reasons," have obtained it in Quintana Roo. In second place is Mexico City. This could mean that they plan to reside for at least four years in Mexican territory. As an additional fact, it is worth mentioning that more and more are obtaining this status in Chiapas; specifically, in Tapachula.

Only Americans, Colombians and Venezuelans outnumbered Cubans in terms of residency status obtained in 2019. In 2020, only Americans and Colombians did so. The former mostly get them for financial and employment reasons, while for Cubans the family aspect is more common. Islanders, in the end, obtain more Mexican temporary residence cards than all Central American and African migrants combined in one year. In this regard, they also those in the state of Chiapas who obtained this residence status the most.

"Many people here choose to win over a Mexican woman. As almost all of them are men, and come alone, it is easy for them to find a girl and get married to get the papers," says Yadiel, who came accompanied by his wife and now plans, together with her, to take the road to the northern border.

According to Yadiel, the Cubans' amorous conquests have given rise to more than one scandal among Mexicans, as many times it turns out that the women in question are already married. There have also been cases in which the Cuban men end up stealing money from their new partners to immediately escape and pay for a safe and comfortable trip up to the northern border.

However, a thorough reading of the statistics reveals certain trends regarding Cubans who decide to stay in Mexico. Cubans tend to obtain both temporary and permanent residency for family reasons, often at the INM in Chiapas. Those who renew these cards (that is, those who, in theory, have already lived in Mexico for four years) usually do so for work reasons, generally in Quintana Roo. This could also reflect an acceptance of Cubans in Mexico's labor market.

"I'm waiting without papers, but I know it would be better to have them. Having residency in Mexico always guarantees that if you are deported from the United States it is to here, not to Cuba," says Rodrigo, whose trip was almost straight from the southern border to the northern one, so he has no immigration status whatsoever. Nor does he dare to seek it now, he says, for fear of being detained by immigration authorities.
In the case of permanent residency, Cubans have also been privileged in recent years. Obtaining this for humanitarian reasons went from 0.7% in 2019 to 25.4% in 2020 (only surpassed by Venezuelan migrants), despite the fact that the number of migrants arriving from the island decreased significantly in that period. Permanent residency based on recognition of refugee status also increased among Cubans, from only 15 in 2019 to 805 in 2020.

"They talk about migrants like the military talks about invaders"

Although many end up staying in Mexico, there are still many more who opt for a "Temporary Visitor for Humanitarian Reasons" card, and head for the northern border. According to the statistics, between 2019 and 2020, the acquisition of these cards tripled among Cubans. The difference between the number of Cubans who obtain a migratory status of this type and the number of Cubans who arrive at the INM is also a sign of how slow these procedures tend to be.

While it is true that Mexican society tends to be more welcoming to Cuban migrants than to most Central Americans, Haitians and Africans, not everything is a bed of roses for the islanders. Since the coming to power of the populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who maintained a suspicious affinity with Donald Trump, xenophobia has increased considerably in Mexico.

"Many media outlets and politicians speak of migrants like the military speaks of invaders, and not in terms of rights for these vulnerable populations. Nationalism affects migrants and increasingly creeps into the populace, who reproduce this discourse," Rita Robles, a worker at the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center in Tapachula, told DIARIO DE CUBA.

According to Robles, for almost three years now, nationalist discourse has permeated Mexico's institutions. While AMLO initially promised jobs and protection for migrants, the reality of his term has been different. Many media outlets in Mexico have echoed xenophobic discourse, which has led the population, especially on the northern border, to protest, claiming that immigrants are stealing their jobs.

In the case of Tapachula, which is primarily a city of migrants, the idea that migrants' informal economic activities have undercut established businesses is also rampant. It has even been suggested that migrants are to blame for the proliferation of disease and organized crime in the country.

Despite all the risks mentioned above, Cubans continue to arrive in Tapachula. According to the trend in recent years, and what the beginning of the current year shows, it is feared that the influx will only increase. Although the reality in Cuba is a far cry from that of Haiti and the Central American countries, the desire to emigrate is the same.

For those who study this phenomenon, in the end, one thing is clear: something must be very awry on the island for jungles, rivers, kidnappers, assailants, drug traffickers, corrupt authorities and xenophobic policies not to be able to deter the sad sojourn of many Cubans towards the "American dream."

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