The five Cubans who turned themselves into U.S. immigration authorities Saturday afternoon were back in Mexico Sunday after they withdrew their asylum applications out of fear they would miss out on any relief President-elect Donald Trump might provide.
Agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection advised them they were seeking something that no longer existed, faced months in detention and still likely would be deported, the Cubans said.
“If I entered the asylum process now and then there is a change to help the Cubans, it wouldn’t matter,” said Alberto Rafael Ramírez, 29. “I’d have to continue in the asylum process.”
The swift end to their asylum request reveals how difficult it will be for many Cubans to argue they’re political refugees who deserve special protection. Like other immigrants traveling from Mexico or El Salvador, Cuban migrants will be subject to being deported if they can’t prove a credible fear of persecution if returned.
Ramírez, Yoanny Iglesia Jimenez, 34, Yoe Luis Santana, 37, Jose Angel Castañeda, 28, and Yanitsy Correoso Rivero all said they were allowed to leave the border station without facing any additional penalties.
Immigration lawyers who’ve consulted with Cuban families questioned the five’s understanding, saying they should be able to benefit from any future special parole or legal assistance the U.S. government provided – not that it should be expected.
Jorge Rivera, a Miami immigration attorney, said it sounded like they received bad advice. But he expected there would be some initial confusion and discrepancies on how Cubans were handled considering the recent change.
“Sounds like there is a lot of dissary at the border right now,” he said. “Obama’s policy change probably took CBP by surprise just like everyone else.”
While the five are hoping that Trump or the Republican-led Congress will provide some legal relief that will usher them into the United States, the likelihood of a policy reversal appears slim.
The most likely champions of their cause, Cuban-American lawmakers, told the Miami Herald last week that they don’t intend to ask Trump to reinstate the “wet foot/dry foot” policy that for two decades had allowed any Cuban who arrived on U.S. soil to legally remain in the country.
Spending the night at the border station was difficult for the group. They were handcuffed and shackled. Some border officials were nicer than others. But largely the group said they were well treated.
“You can see my face,” Casteñeda said. “I’m so tired. My body is tired. My mind is tired. My faith is almost broken. But I won’t leave from here.”
Jimenez said the agents were kind, but direct. The five were told they could be in detention two months or a year. Ramírez said they would be detained with some dangerous criminals and, in the end, it would be a difficult battle to win.
Correoso, of Guantánamo, the only woman in the group, said she was surprised by how well they were treated. The agents gave them tacos and energy bars. They explained the risks that they were taking and allowed them to withdraw their applications without being further penalized.
The five were split on what they would do if a legal path to the United States doesn’t emerge.
Ramírez said he has no intention of spending months in a U.S. prison, but Jimenez said he would seek asylum again. Castañeda and Santana had yet to make up their mind. Correoso said she’d concentrate on the positive.
“At this moment, the only thing I can focus on is that I’ll be able to enter,” she said.