Despite limited communication with the outside world, Grand Cayman’s detention center for Cuban migrants was already buzzing with chatter Friday about the abrupt “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy change in the United States.
Most of the 83 migrants detained at the center had hoped to find refuge under the policy in the U.S., which until Thursday had granted legal status to Cubans who touched American soil.
The Obama administration’s policy reversal, however, has not deterred these migrants from seeking asylum.
Edel Garcias, 19, said he and others have no intention of staying in Cuba if deported from the Cayman Islands, a common emergency stopping point for Cuban migrants en route to the United States.
Garcias had planned to pass through Cayman before moving on to Guatemala, Mexico and ultimately the southern U.S. border.
“People are going to continue, because in Cuba the system that has been implemented obligates people to throw themselves to the sea and emigrate far from their families,” he said.
“Except now we are like normal Central Americans, like Mexicans or Hondurans.” Mr. Garcias said he left Cuba to avoid obligatory military service that goes against his family’s religious beliefs. Even after his detention in the Cayman Islands, he expressed no regrets about leaving Cuba.
“People are going to keep trying, because to live in Cuba, you have to be crazy,” Mr. Garcias said.
From behind the detention center fence, dozens of migrants crowded around Garcias, desperate to have their cases heard by the outside world. Ydilianis Alcolea, 21, pushed to the front and over shouts and pleas for help, she said she has a message for her government.
“I want to tell them that it doesn’t matter what Obama has implemented, because we are Cubans and we won’t stay quiet. When we go back there, we are going to join the opposition movement and we are going to fight,” Ms. Alcolea said.
She has been trying to reach the U.S. for two years, with a hope echoed by her fellow detainees: to find work and provide a better future for her family in Cuba.
“In Cuba, I don’t have dreams. I don’t have liberty. I want to get ahead and fight for my dreams. I want to pull myself up. I want my children and my family to have a better future,” she said.
Several migrants said they have been detained in Cayman for a year or longer, a claim that could not be verified with local immigration officials.
Noemis Rivero, 55, said she has been in detention for five months and has no idea how much longer she will need to wait for a response to her asylum request. Like others, she still holds hope of obtaining legal status in the U.S. or the Cayman Islands – anywhere other than Cuba.
“Here we are asking for asylum as well. If God gets us asylum, we can live better here because it’s a wonderful island to live on,” she said.
Rivero and others said they have been unsuccessful in attempts to organize meetings with immigration lawyers in Cayman and have not received word on how long their cases will take to process.
Acting Chief Officer for the Ministry of Home Affairs Kathryn Dinspel-Powell said in an official statement that she hopes the U.S. policy change will ease migration pressure on the Cayman Islands.
“We welcome the policy change and are hopeful that as a result we will see fewer numbers of migrants arriving on our shores and that ultimately it will lead to a decrease in the loss of life at sea,” she said.
The policy change will not impact the status of Cubans already living in the Cayman Islands. The government reported it will continue to manage migration in accordance with local laws.