Immigration may activate 'mass migration' response

With more than 100 Cuban migrants either being housed in or currently passing through Cayman Islands waters, the Cayman Islands Immigration Department is standing by to activate its “mass migration” plan.“ 

These numbers are a heavy strain on our resources,” said Ministry of Home Affairs Deputy Chief Officer Wesley Howell. 

The current policy, drafted in 2013 by the Mass Migration Management Committee, looks at government’s contingency plans among various agencies, including health services, social services, immigration and police in the event that Cayman has a mass influx of migrants.  

The policy covers such areas as risk assessment, various agency roles during a mass migration response, interception of migrants and human rights issues involved in those interceptions. The full text of the policy has not been made public at present due to security concerns.  

An earlier migration plan was put to the test in the mid-1990s when thousands of Cuban migrants who landed ended up living temporarily in “tent cities.”  

The number of Cubans arriving so far this year indicates nothing similar happening this year. However, Cuban migrants have been arriving in makeshift watercraft in much larger numbers since the start of 2014, according to the ministry.  

In 2014, 143 Cubans landed illegally in the Cayman Islands and another 368 passed by the islands on their way to Central America. Those figures dwarf anything the Cayman Islands had seen since 2005-2006.  

So far this year, the number of Cuban arrivals are on pace to surpass those totals, with 48 landing through March 26 and another 86 boaters passing through. As of press time Tuesday, the fate of 59 Cuban boaters moored off Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac waiting for calmer seas before continuing on their journey was unknown. 

According to the ministry, the largest group was reported at Colliers Beach on Monday, when 31 men and seven women from Cuba were awaiting a sea change, while another man aboard chose to disembark and be taken into custody. Another Cuban group of nine men and four women were docked near the old Divi Tiara resort on the south side of Cayman Brac.  

A third group of eight Cuban migrants floated into George Town harbor on Sunday and anchored off the harbor, where they remained Tuesday afternoon.  

Cayman Islands law enforcement officials said it seemed a number of the Cuban travelers believed the American government was about to change the legal policy it has used since the mid-1990s to determine whether landed migrants could remain in the U.S.  

The policy, developed under former President Bill Clinton’s administration, allows migrants who reach land to remain in the U.S. through various processes, while those at sea must be repatriated.  

Cayman is typically a stopover point for migrants seeking to reach Honduras and travel through Central America and Mexico into the southern border of the United States, often winding up in Arizona, New Mexico or Texas. The Cubans who arrive in Cayman are generally considered “economic migrants,” but they may apply for political asylum in Cayman.  

Tourists at George Town harbor pose for photos Tuesday as a dilapidated boat carrying Cuban migrants floats in the background. The eight men on board the boat have been there since Sunday. – Photo: Taneos Ramsay