Gricel Gonzalez (Cafe Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — More than a hundred Cubans currently stranded on the island of St. Thomas – a US overseas territory in the Caribbean – are going through a veritable bureaucratic ordeal, waiting for a routine migratory procedure.
The group is at a crossroads: its members do not have work permits, homes or relatives on this, one of the United States’ Virgin Islands. They have only been given a card with which to buy food.
The number of Cubans waiting to be processed on St. Thomas is reported at around 140, though the immigrants themselves insist the figure is far higher.
When Cuban immigrants arrive at St. Thomas, they are subject to US migratory law and must go through the same identity check process those who cross the border into the country or arrive in Florida by sea to avail themselves of the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) are subjected to. The procedure is the one established under the migratory accords of 1994 and 1995, which allow Cubans who set foot on US soil to submit a request for political asylum, receive a parole and secure permanent residence in the country.
The Cubans currently waiting to be processed are surviving thanks to the help of some locals.
On occasion, the journey from Cuba to US soil involves as many as four stopovers in different countries and a sea voyage. Those intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard Service are repatriated.
What is inexplicable is that the group should remain in a kind of migratory limbo and that their stay on the island appears to extend itself indefinitely.
The immigration office in St. Thomas explained it has limited staff and the volume of Cuban immigrants makes the process slower. The US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) in Miami referred the questions regarding the Cubans to the head office in Washington, but the request has not yet been addressed.
“The process includes a background check, so it could be as long as it takes the US Citizenship and Immigration office and the Immigration and Customs Agency (ICE) to complete it,” states a communiqué issued by the office of Cuban-American congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Flow of Cubans
Like the British Cayman Islands, St. Thomas has become a destination for Cubans seeking passage to the United States through the “south route”, an alternative to the closely-monitored Strait of Florida, where authorities vigorously seek to stymie the flow of illegal immigrants arriving from the north of Cuba.
In November of last year, The Virgin Islands Daily News reported that 35 Cubans had arrived at the island of St. Croix, also belonging to the Virgin Islands, pointing out this was the third group to arrive in only six months. This trend has local authorities very worried.
The testimonies afforded by Cuban immigrants tell of a chapter in migratory history that is entirely new for US authorities.
“I was afraid, I thought I’d fall off, because we were going very fast. There was a lot of wind, the sail was up and the engine on, so the boat was going very fast and I threw up a lot. The sailboat was tilting to one side,” said Jason, a 9-year-old child who left Cuba with his parents in August of 2013.
His mother, Jimena Fuentes Abreu, tells us that the voyage to St. Thomas took them from Cuba to Panama and then to Saint Lucia, and then to the experience of crossing the sea from St. Martin to St. Thomas that her son recalls.
A Long Wait
Alberto Padon, who arrived on the island in the early morning of May 20th and approached the St. Thomas Immigration Office that morning, is in a similar situation. It wasn’t until 4 in the afternoon that he was seen and an agent who introduced himself as “officer Torres” explained he had to be processed by the Coast Guard Service.
“He told us he was interested in processing us as quickly as possible but that it wasn’t in hands, because the Border Patrol is a government body that is totally separate from them,” Padron explained. “He said he was going to ask them to process us as soon as possible, but that they couldn’t give us parole until the Coast Guard saw us.”
The representatives of the Coast Guard Service, however, told Torres they hadn’t been informed they had to subject Padron to an interview.
Padron left Cuba on March 24. He travelled to Panama, Trinidad and Tobago and Saint Lucia, where he crossed the sea for Saint Thomas. In his despair, he contacted Miami’s Univision Noticias 23, which televised the situation of the group of Cubans stranded in St. Thomas.
“We’re going through very hard times, living in the homes of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans who have offered to help. It’s become embarrassing, because we have no money to help the Dominican lady who’s lent us a hand – it’s been a very long time already and we’re a nuisance,” Padro explained. “We’re not asking for a comfortable house with air conditioning, we’re asking for a shelter we can stay in.”
Padron also complained they have not been subjected to medical examinations (there are insulin-dependent diabetics in the group).
The case of Jorge Rodriguez is similar. He arrived on the island in March and, even though his fingerprints were taken a month ago, he has yet to receive a definitive response from authorities.
“What they tell us is that they have limited staff, and I don’t understand why they say this. I walk past the immigration office every day and it’s empty, there’s no one there. There’s one person waiting there at most,” Rodriguez said.
On June 25, eight Cubans registered a complaint before St. Thomas congresswoman Donna Christensen in connection with the long wait. They are still waiting for a response from immigration authorities.