MIAMI — Four years after the first Cuban migration crisis in Central America, about 600 Cubans and another 120 migrants from Haiti and Africa are again in Panama as part of a “freedom caravan” to the United States.
“We want to go on! We want to go on!” the migrants are seen shouting at officials of Panama’s National Border Service in videos posted on social media over the weekend.
Their goal is to reach the United States and ask for asylum, although U.S. regulations and policies that once benefited Cuban migrants have changed significantly.
In 2017, former President Barack Obama eliminated the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed most Cubans who set foot on U.S. territory to remain. Nonetheless, Cubans continue to arrive in the United States. Most request political asylum, a legal process that requires proof they would be persecuted if returned to the island.
The migrant group now in Panama is much like others organized in Central America to head to the U.S. border with Mexico. They are traveling as a group through the region. President Donald Trump has asked Congress for funds to build a wall to protect the country from undocumented immigration, and referred to the caravans during his State of the Union speech, saying he had deployed 3,750 more troops to the border.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Trump plans to declare a national emergency so he can order the military to build the border wall.
Trump has called the undocumented entries through the southern border a “moral issue” and a threat to the security and financial well-being of all Americans.
One of the hundreds of Cuban migrants newly arrived in Panama told el Nuevo Herald that the group is facing a “very difficult” situation.
“We have pregnant women, children, elderly people. We want to reach the land of freedom, the United States. We are an immigrant caravan of freedom. No one wants to stay in Panama,” he wrote in a text via Messenger. He asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
He said he was paying for the trip to the border with his savings from a job in Uruguay, where he arrived in 2017 and left later in hope of joining relatives in Miami. The Cubans on the caravan organized themselves through social media to protect themselves from criminals along the way to the U.S. border, he added.
Panama Security Minister Jonathan del Rosario told el Nuevo Herald the caravan included about 600 Cubans and 120 others, including migrants from Haiti and Africa, who entered the country over the weekend.
Colombia’s immigration chief, Christian Krüger Sarmiento, confirmed that there’s been an increase in the flow of undocumented migrants from his country to neighboring Panama, and added that the two countries are cooperating to handle the issue.
Carrying white flags and shouting “freedom,” the Cubans have turned up in small towns on the Panama side of the border such as Puerto Obaldia, where 585 are staying. National Border Service officials said some of the African migrants suffer from malaria, complicating the situation.
Del Rosario said the immigrants arrived “abruptly” in an area frequented by Colombian guerrillas and drug traffickers.
“Panama has a series of required procedures (to ensure) … the migrants do not present a risk to public health or the community, and to collect biometric data to confirm they are not wanted by Interpol and are not terrorists,” he said in a telephone interview.
The Panama government has sent 11,700 pounds of food and other humanitarian supplies to the region, as well as additional personnel from its immigration, public health and civil protection services.
Del Rosario criticized the Cubans on the border. “They are disrespectful. They come into our territory filming, shouting, insulting the authorities. Our job is to maintain order in our country. Whoever does not obey the authorities will have to suffer the consequences,” he said.
He also denied the migrants’ complaints that they were tear-gassed. “This country has been an example of how to treat immigration in a safe and orderly manner. Unfortunately, just because we have sympathy for the migrants doesn’t mean we can just allow them to enter our country without obeying our laws,” he added.
A video filmed by a group of Cubans in the indigenous village of Guna Yala shows them stealing yucca from a garden. Others posted on social networks also show them disturbing the peace in other small communities.
“They came shouting ‘freedom’ and demanding free food and medicine. Why don’t they ask Raul Castro for freedom in Cuba? Let’s send them back to their island and see if they complain like they do here,” Ingrid Solano, a resident of the Panama town of La Chorrera, told el Nuevo Herald via WhatsApp.
Solano said the Cubans don’t appreciate the help provided by the Panama government. “Why do they get free assistance and even money to return to their island, while we Panamanians get nothing from the government?” she added. “It doesn’t seem right to me.”
Del Rosario added that his country regretted that the Cuban migrants included children whose parents risked their lives walking through the jungle that covers northern Colombia and southern Panama.
Although the government’s policy is to allow the migrants to continue on their way, if neighbors to the north decide to close their borders, they could be deported to Cuba or Colombia, he said.
“At the end of the day, our laws do not allow the possibility of rectifying the status of those who enter without documents,” he added.
Panama and Cuba have a deportation agreement, signed after a previous Cuban migration resulted in humanitarian flights to the United States. Cubans made up the largest group of undocumented foreigners detained in Panama last year, with more than 550, according to the National Immigration Service.
The hard road of nearly 2,500 miles north faced by the latest caravan does not appear to deter the group.
“We’re going to move on, push forward, overcome the problem,” said another migrant contacted by el Nuevo Herald. “As long as we remain united, no one is going to be able to stop us. On to the Yuma,” he said, using Cuban slang for the United States.