Cuban Refugees Arrive in New Jersey from Central America

(Photo via Reporte Hispano)

(Photo via Reporte Hispano)

The first five Cubans from a group of 180 arrived in West New York, New Jersey, from Costa Rica, where they received a transit visa to the U.S. It is estimated that between 8,000 and 9,000 Cuban immigrants are currently in Costa Rica and Panama waiting to pass to get to the U.S. border.

Although they are all relieved to reach safe harbor, their year-long journey through unknown, inhospitable terrain has left its mark.

Nolvis García vividly remembers the agony her group went through. The most traumatic moments happened at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border last November, when law enforcement repressed them after they had advanced 10 km (about 6 miles) into Nicaragua.

“They threw tear gas at us, rubber bullets, they broke collarbones, they split heads open, they did not respect the fact that there were children, pregnant women… All to push us back to the border,” García told Reporte Hispano at the medical offices in Hudson County of West New York Mayor Félix Roque, who is helping the group of five find temporary shelter.

While their immigration status is being resolved, the group has no time to think about their newfound freedom.

García’s niece, Yeleine Céspedes, from the city of Holguín, left Cuba before her aunt in 2014, and went to Ecuador. She worked as a waitress there for a year, earning only $5 per day. Now, she can only think of getting back to work to pay back the $3,000 she owes for her journey toward the American dream.

“I studied to be a nurse in Cuba but did not graduate because I would not have been able to leave. Doctors and nurses are not allowed out without special permission from the government. First, I want to work ‒ urgently ‒ and then I want to study something related to medicine,” said Céspedes.

García’s daughter Liliana Borges, 26, is not planning to visit the Statue of Liberty or Times Square for now.

“The truth is that we are so stressed out that we don’t want to visit anything for now. All we can think about is finding work. Later, when things are more stable, I may go back to studying law,” said Borges, her voice breaking.

Sergé Acosta left Cuba on Aug. 24, 2015. He went to Ecuador and joined the group that ended up in Union City [on the border of West New York]. He has a small $220 debt for the bus that took him to Laredo, but he expects to be able to pay it back soon when he finds a job.

“It seems to me that I am not going to be able to work here in what I used to do in Cuba. I was a farmer and also a mason for a while. That I may be able to do,” said Acosta, whose second priority is to learn English.

The last one in the group is Orestes Arias, 26, who studied computer science at the Pablo de la Torriente Brau Institute, in the city of Miramar, and is well-versed in optical fiber technology. He was able to put his knowledge to work in Venezuela in 2010 and expects to advance his career “in the first world.”

Mayor demands solutions

West New York Mayor Dr. Félix Roque, an advocate and defender of Cuban refugees, said that this wave of Cubans “is not like the Mariel Boatlift [in 1980] of which, with all due respect, Castro took advantage of to send out all the prisoners he had in jails, who brought drug addiction and delinquency problems. After spending eight days in Costa Rica with them, I guarantee that these compatriots ‒ I believe most of them, at least 90 percent ‒ are educated people: lawyers, doctors, journalists, engineers,” said Roque. “These are people who did not want to leave Cuba to find financial well-being, but to flee the same repression my family escaped from in 1967.”

The mayor added that he is grateful for the leadership shown by Costa Rica President Luis Guillermo Solís and Chancellor Manuel González, but that they do not have the infrastructure to support 9,000 Cuban refugees, including many pregnant women, children and adults who cannot get up from the floor because there is no insulin available.

Roque said that these thousands of human beings are suffering unnecessarily and asked for a swift solution to this humanitarian crisis. “The easiest thing to do is to put them on a plane and take them to Mexico. It is cheaper and safer,” said Roque. The so-called ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ law allows any Cuban citizen who reaches U.S. soil to apply for permanent residency a year and a day after arriving. Those who are caught at sea cannot benefit and are sent back to Cuba.

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