Bound for U.S., Cuban migrants are stuck in Central America

A Cuban migrant cuts vegetables in a provisional shelter in Paso Canoas, Panama, on March 21.

Story highlights

  • Cuban migrants on the journey to the United States are blocked at Costa Rican border
  • A similar bottleneck at the Nicaraguan border was resolved
  • Cuban migrants think U.S. immigration policies will change with the political thaw

(CNN)Pavel Fernandez and his wife have hit a wall.

The Cuban missionary decided to immigrate to the United States, where he hopes to be a pastor at a church in Syracuse, New York. In doing so, he became part of a surge of Cuban migrants heading north. And like thousands of others, he's hit an unexpected wall.
President Barack Obama's historic trip to Cuba this week represented an opening of doors to the Americas, but one largely overlooked group of Cubans finds themselves stranded at another barrier.
    Speculating that a thaw in relations will bring a change to the United States' immigration policy toward Cuban refugees, which currently favors those who reach U.S. shores, Cuban emigration has spiked.
    The new wave of Cuban migrants favors a path in which they fly from Cuba to South America and then journey north to the U.S.-Mexico border, in contrast to the Florida-bound boats and rafts of the past.
    A bottleneck formed in Costa Rica last year when neighboring Nicaragua -- a close ally of the Cuban government's -- prohibited Cuban migrants from crossing its territory. It took a multinational agreement to create a solution, offering the migrants flights from Costa Rica and Panama to Mexico's northern border, bypassing Nicaragua.
    Now, a new migrant crisis is building -- this time in Panama.
    Cuban migrants rest in an old hotel used as a provisional shelter in Paso Canoas, Panama, on March 20.
    After the airlift of about 5,000 Cuban migrants from Costa Rica to Mexico, Costa Rica closed its borders to additional Cuban migrants.
    The flights ended in mid-March, according to the International Organization for Migration, which helped coordinate the flights.
    Migrants are now finding themselves stuck at Panama's northern border with Costa Rica.
    "We don't know what we are going to do," Fernandez said. "We have high expectations that the governments involved, including Panama and Mexico, will come up with a solution."
    According to the Panamanian government, nearly 1,300 Cuban migrants took flights from Panama to Mexico under the multinational agreement, but still more meet the requirements to benefit under the plan.
    Some Cubans simply arrived too late: The agreement applied only to migrants who were in Panama at the time the deal was signed, Panama's foreign ministry said.
    Until the diplomatic dilemma is sorted out, the number of Cuban migrant families continues to mount in Panama, fueling concerns of a humanitarian crisis.
    "Like most of the countries in our region, we are working to come up with a solution for what we consider a humanitarian issue in an effort to protect the human rights of the migrants," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
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    The waiting game

    The majority of the Cuban migrants are amassing in Paso Canoas, a city that straddles the border between Panama and Costa Rica. One hotel alone, the Hotel Millenium, has 550 migrants staying there, according to local figures.
    Fernandez has visited the hotel, where, he says, up to eight people fill each room.
    He is using social media to share photos of conditions in which the stranded migrants are living.
    One image on Facebook shows a long line that Fernandez says consists of Cubans waiting for their sole meal of the day.
    "Among the migrants are pregnant women, people with chronic illness like diabetes, hypertension and a few cases of dehydration but no severe cases," Fernandez said.
    The international Catholic organization Caritas reports that more than 2,200 Cuban migrants were stranded in Panama as of Sunday.
    The tiny fishing village of Puerto Obaldia is currently home to approximately 900 migrants, who outnumber the local population, according to Caritas.
    "This is not as large-scale as the European migrant exodus but still overwhelming our resources," said Deacon Victor Berrio, executive secretary for Caritas Panama.
    Despite help from local chapters of the Red Cross, food banks and the Panamanian government, the struggle to provide food and shelter to the deluge of Cuban men, women and children filling the region continues.

    Appeal for a new agreement

    The number of migrants entering Panama, including the stranded Cubans, is breaking records, the government says.
    In 2015, nearly 26,000 Cubans entered Panama, a fivefold increase over 2014, CNN affiliate TVN reported, citing government figures.
    This year, migrants are entering Panama at a rate of about 23 a day, TVN reported.
    In response to the bottleneck on its side of the border with Costa Rica, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela made a humanitarian plea to hotels this month to take in the stranded Cubans.
    Cuban migrants queue for donated food at a provisional shelter in Paso Canoas, Panama, on March 20.
    A church leader, Cardinal Jose Luis Lacunza, called for Central American nations and Mexico to reach a new agreement to manage the migrant flow and avoid a crisis, TVN reported.
    "Costa Rica has made the decision that not one more Cuban will cross (the border) and those who cross illegally will be deported," Lacunza said. "This puts us in a more critical juncture to see if the Panamanian government and other governments can reach agreements to allow these Cubans to be transported."

    The Cuban Adjustment Act

    Obama's trip to Havana may further fuel concerns that renewed relations could mean the elimination of the Cuban Adjustment Act.
    Signed into law in 1966, the law allows Cuban refugees who set foot in the United States to live and work, and puts them on a fast track for citizenship. Those who are found while still at sea are returned to Cuba.
    The Obama administration maintains that it does not foresee any policy changes.
    "We are not planning to institute change with respect to 'wet-foot, dry-foot' (as the law is known), but we do regularly look at our broader migration policies," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said at White House briefing last month.
    Still, two congressmen from Texas -- Democrat Henry Cuellar and Republican Blake Farenthold -- filed a bill Wednesday that would do away with the favorable treatment for Cuban refugees "in an effort to level the playing field for all those seeking to enter this country," in Cuellar's words.
    The latest figures provided to CNN by a congressional source show that the number of Cuban migrants seeking refugee status in the U.S. more than doubled last year.
    According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics, 24,477 Cubans were admitted into the U.S. with refugee status in 2014. That figure nearly doubled in 2015 to 43,154. The figure for this year already stands at 25,806.