The Miami Herald
Mon, Oct. 20, 2008

Mexico to deport Cubans heading illegally to US


Mexico agreed Monday to deport Cubans who sneak illegally through Mexican territory to reach the U.S., a step toward cutting off an increasingly violent and heavily used human trafficking route.

The agreement, signed by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa, takes effect in one month. It also criticizes U.S. policy that generally allows Cubans who reach U.S. territory to stay, while turning back most caught at sea.

Cuban migrants in recent years have increasingly headed for Mexico - often to the coast near Cancun - then overland to Texas because it has become so hard to dodge the U.S. Coast Guard and reach Florida to qualify for U.S. residency.

The Department of Homeland Security said 11,126 used the Mexico route last year, compared to just 1,055 who landed in the Miami area.

Before Monday, Mexico rarely sent back Cubans caught entering the country illegally. Many were held for a time, then were given 10 to 30-day exit orders which allowed them to continue on to Texas, where Cubans present only identity documents and undergo medical and background checks before being welcomed to America.

Under the new agreement, Mexico agreed to deport Cubans found illegally in Mexico, both those who arrive from their native island by boat and those who come up through Central America.

Mexico can still grant asylum on a case-by-case basis to migrants, but the accord contained no specific guarantees that those returned to Cuba would not face reprisals. Both countries can reserve the right to deny entry to anyone it sees as a security risk.

Perez Roque said the agreement would lead to "the immense majority of Cubans being repatriated." Approximately 2,000 Cubans are currently being held in Mexican immigration detention centers.

"I am sure that this memorandum of understanding is going to significantly reduce attempts to use Mexico as a route to getting to the United States," he said.

Lazaro Mendez, a Miami-based radio personality whose fishing boat was stolen by migrant smugglers plying the Cuban trade, doubted that Monday's accord would stem the problem, in which Florida vessels are increasingly being snatched to run Cubans to Mexico.

"Is it gonna stop? No, until communist Cuba becomes a free nation," Mendez said.

Andy Gomez, a senior fellow and assistant provost at University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies, said stopping the wave of migrants coming through Mexico will be difficult because smugglers often pay off Mexican authorities.

Even if the smuggling route through Mexico is successfully cut off, Gomez predicted that Cuban migrants will land in the Florida Panhandle, northeastern Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.

"Currently, the resources of the U.S. Coast Guard are quite limited and the square miles (kilometers) they cover are quite limited," said Gomez. "These smugglers are very good. In most cases, they're going around the authorities. It's a very lucrative job."

Mexico has grown increasingly frustrated with the Cuban migration, which often involves ruthless human trafficking gangs.

In June, gunmen snatched 33 Cubans off a government bus headed to an immigration station in southern Mexico, possibly to extort money from them or their smugglers. Many of those migrants later turned up in the U.S.

All detained Cuban migrants now have armed police escorts.

Several Cuban-Americans believed to be involved in smuggling have been killed in recent years in or around Cancun.

Henry Louis Gomez, managing editor of the Miami-based, the leading blog on Cuban American affairs, called the smuggling problems a "byproduct" of the U.S.'s so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy.

"But in the absence of wet-foot dry-foot, what do you do?" he asks. "There would be no need for the policy if people weren't dying, literally, to get out of Cuba."

Perez Roque said his visit to Mexico was a sign of improved relations between the two countries.

Ties between the communist island and Mexico soured under the 2000-2006 presidency of Vicente Fox, when Mexico voted at the U.N. in favor of monitoring human rights in Cuba. Relations reached a low in 2004, when both countries called home their ambassadors.