Cubans out of community centers, immigration officials confirm

An acute overcrowding situation involving dozens of Cuban migrants who were forced to temporarily live in various community centers on Grand Cayman has subsided, at least for the time being, Immigration Department officials confirmed Wednesday.

The final group of 18 Cuban migrants who had been living at the William Allen McLaughlin community center in East End were taken back into the main Immigration Detention Centre in Fairbanks, George Town Wednesday afternoon, Acting Chief Immigration Officer Bruce Smith said.

Cubans who had landed illegally in the islands over the past several months had also been kept in North Side’s Craddock Ebanks Civic Centre and the James M. Bodden Civic Centre in Bodden Town, but Mr. Smith said those facilities had been emptied about two weeks prior to Wednesday.

The Immigration Detention Centre in central George Town is packed full again, but officials are no longer having to put migrants in local community centers. – Photo: Brent Fuller
The Immigration Detention Centre in central George Town is packed full again, but officials are no longer having to put migrants in local community centers. – Photo: Brent Fuller

At one stage between January and February, immigration officials recorded between 130 and 140 migrants being housed on Grand Cayman. The main detention center on Fairbanks Road can only hold about 60 people, so the remainder had to be spread across the less-populated eastern districts.

“Within the last month, there has been a decline in frequency of Cuban boats [in Cayman’s territorial waters],” Mr. Smith said, adding that immigration officials were not entirely certain what led to the drop-off in makeshift craft that are often seen in local waters.

Typically, the boaters are classified as economic migrants, fleeing poor wages in their home country and seeking entry to the U.S. via Central America and Mexico.

If the migrants come ashore, or inform Cayman authorities that they wish to be taken into custody, they are housed at the detention center to await their repatriation – a process that often takes months to complete. In recent months, as the Cuban arrivals have piled up, the repatriation process has been unable to keep up.

Mr. Smith said a number of Cuban nationals had been sent back within the last few weeks, enough so that the community centers were no longer needed for housing. However, Mr. Smith said the Immigration Detention Center remained full to capacity and the arrival of any other Cuban migrant vessels in the coming weeks could put Cayman back in the same situation.

Prisons Director Neil Lavis, who has oversight responsibility for immigration detention, said there were a total of 55 Cuban detainees now being kept at the Fairbanks facility. Two others, who are serving time for illegal landing in the islands, are at Northward Prison.

Four other migrants, including a pregnant woman and a juvenile who apparently made a trip with a parent from Cuba earlier this year, are being kept in a hotel, Mr. Lavis said.

The pregnancy presents a specific set of difficulties for local law enforcement officials, both medically and legally. Women past 28-weeks pregnant are sometimes not allowed to fly due to risks of entering premature labor. Also, if the child is born in Cayman, it has the potential to become “stateless,” since it typically would not be given Caymanian status and Cuban authorities might not accept the child back into their country. Both issues could present problems with repatriation.

The general upsurge in Cuban migrants has been noted since late 2014 in Cayman and is usually blamed on speculation that the U.S. will change its immigration rules regarding landed migrants – often called the “wet-foot, dry-foot policy.”

In 1995, the U.S. Congress revised the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, basically allowing anyone who fled Cuba and who managed to enter the U.S. to pursue residency a year after entering. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration agreed with the Cuban government that it would stop admitting migrants found at sea.

Since then, Cubans found in the waters between the two nations are repatriated or sent to another country if it is determined to be unsafe to send them back to Cuba. Anyone who makes it to shore gets an opportunity to remain in the U.S. and potentially qualify for expedited permanent resident status.

President Barack Obama’s late 2014 announcement regarding his administration’s change in policy toward Cuba brought some concerns that the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy would end and that, going forward, any illegal migrants would be expelled, whether found on land or at sea.

U.S. Coast Guard officials said in January 2014 that “coyotes” – people who profit from assisting in the transport of illegal migrants – were perpetuating rumors that the wet-foot, dry-foot policy would end, seeking to encourage more illegal migration.

Meanwhile, the Cayman Islands government has spent considerably more than US$1 million in the past two budget years partly due to housing, medical and feeding costs for the migrants, and partly due to additional security measures that had to be taken at the Immigration Detention Centre to prevent the migrants’ frequent escapes.