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Flow of migrants on their way to the United States
George Rodríguez
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Authorities address problem of unwelcomed migration from humanitarian and legal perspective.

Costa Rica is facing a major-scale test to its well-earned reputation in the defense of human rights: how to keep a massive influx of undocumented migrants from becoming a crisis.

A scenario similar to the drama of thousands of migrants arriving in Europe is one the authorities of this Central American nation are striving to avoid — and have been successful in doing so.

Although it is an unwanted flow of people headed for the United States, seeking the “American dream,” Costa Rican officials are making an effort to balance respect of human rights and compliance with the country’s laws.

This includes providing for basic needs and for some type of legality for a moving population which includes families with young children and pregnant women.

Exposing the emergency, Costa Rican Communication Minister Mauricio Herrera — the government’s spokesperson and coordinator of the effort — told Latinamerica Press, that the case is unprecedented in the country.

Central America has been, for years, the corridor for a constant exodus of Cuban nationals seeking to join friends and relatives in the US, aiming at jobs and salaries they say they cannot find in their Caribbean island nation.

Unlike others following the trail to the United States, Cubans — who are not undocumented migrants —, have some guarantees regarding their entry into US territory, stemming from legislation tailor made for them.

One of those instruments is “An Act to adjust the status of Cuban refugees to that of lawful permanent residents of the United States, and for other purposes”, a lengthy title officially shortened to Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA).

The CAA, effective since November 1966, allows Cubans illegally entering the United States to remain and work there, and gives them one year to become regular residents.

It applies to islanders arriving in the United States after January 1, 1959, the day when the guerrillas of the Movimiento 26 de Julio, led by Fidel Castro, ended the repressive and corrupt dictatorship (1952-1959) headed by Gen. Fulgencio Batista.

A review of the CAA, in 1995, gave birth to the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy which, added to the benefits of the former, grants Cubans entering United States soil through its 3,155-kilometer with Mexico — with “dry feet”— the possibility to qualify for US citizenship.

This does not apply for those trying to reach the country on a 90-mile perilous sail —with “wet feet”—, usually on board makeshift rafts, between Cuba and Florida.

In November of last year, Costa Rican authorities busted a local illegal structure made up of “coyotes” (traffickers), a link in the lengthy chain of organized crime networks charging irregular migrants to take them to the US, along a risky and lengthy trail starting in South America –Ecuador, followed by Colombia- and crossing Central America and Mexico before reaching the United States.

This left an increasing number of Cubans stranded in Paso Canoas, at Costa Rica’s southern border with Panama, a situation worsened by Nicaragua’s decision to close its boundary with Costa Rica to irregular migrants en route to the United States.

Diplomatic efforts
Intense diplomatic efforts by Costa Rican top authorities enabled early this year a regional solution involving also El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, to allow for the approximately 8,000 Cubans affected  — among them, several families and five babies born in Costa Rica — to safely reach their desired destination.

A successful January-March operation made it possible for those Cubans to leave on buses and on commercial flights, a solution the Costa Rican government — particularly President Luis Guillermo Solís and Foreign Affairs Minister Manuel González — repeatedly warned was a one-time only action that would not take place again.

Nevertheless, more Cuban nationals — seeking the same treatment — tried to enter in April from Panama, through Paso Canoas, a city some 320 kilometers southwest of San José, the Costa Rican capital, but were stopped. Paso Canoas is a bustling commercial town stretching on both sides of the 330-kilomneter Panama-Costa Rica border.

Immediately after the Cuban operation, hundreds of undocumented Africans –described by the Costa Rican government as “extra-continental” migrants —, managed to get through, hoping to reach and cross the 309-kilometer northern Costa Rican border with Nicaragua and continue the northward trail.

For extra-continentals, the journey is considerably lengthier, since it implies crossing the Atlantic Ocean — mostly on board cargo ships —, reaching Brazil or Colombia, and then, trekking north.

But the Nicaraguan government is set on keeping their side of the boundary with Costa Rica closed for irregular US-bound migrants — and they cannot be sent back to Panama, because its authorities refuse to allow them in since they lack identity documents.

Thus, the situation started in Paso Canoas is replicating in Peñas Blancas, the Costa Rican border post some 311 kilometers northwest of San José, and over 500 kilometers north of Paso Canoas.

“This is an unprecedented situation for Costa Rica,” said Herrera, a journalist who last year left the post of editor of Semanario Universidad, the state University of Costa Rica’s (UCR) weekly newspaper, to join Solís’ team.

“Our laws and our institutional structures, in terms of immigration, were prepared for a normal flow of migrants –including a certain normal flow of irregular migrants when they come from Nicaragua, from Panama, or Latin Americans,” he added.

“But definitely, our laws and our institutional framework could not be prepared for massive migrations of Cuban citizens, and least of all, for massive migrations of persons coming from Africa or from Asia,” he went on to underline.

“So, we’re doing everything possible to address, in the best way, this situation (…) from two perspectives, and this is a central concept in the policy to treat this immigration situation,” Herrera went on to say.

“In the first place, we tend to this situation from a humanitarian perspective, meaning the protection of people’s human rights and dignity, and also — parallel to the humanitarian approach — we tend to it in such a way as to have Costa Rican laws be complied with,” he pointed out, adding that “in both aspects we’ve been most consistent and we’ve been most thorough.”

Herrera further explained that “from those two perspectives derives the rest of what we’ve been doing,” which implies, “for those who’ve already entered the country, to have the minimum humanitarian attention, guaranteeing their dignity and preventing those persons from becoming ill or having their personal integrity harmed.”

Not a legal passage
This assistance is initially provided at the camp set up in the Paso Canoas Fair Ground and later at other installations in nearby towns.

“So, that means that a basic attention system has been set up to make satisfaction of essential human needs possible, on the one hand, and on the other — which is completely consistent with this approach —, that from the very first moment they’ve managed to enter the country, national laws in this matter are applied to them –and the Immigration Law is strictly enforced,” stated the official.

Herrera made it a point to underline “a very important message: Costa Rica is not issuing visas to those people, nor is it authorizing transit to Nicaragua,” stating that “Costa Rica is not a legal passage of irregular migrants to Nicaragua or to the United States, and this immigration is not welcome.”

“And it’s not welcome because, in the first place, there are no documents, there’s no way to precisely know who they are,” and, “on the other hand, the country has no conditions to adequately cater to this population,” he stressed.

Having immigration authorities register the incoming foreigners and placing them under a system that includes medical and other humanitarian assistance “allows us, at least in national territory, to take them away from coyotes,” Herrera further explained, adding that “in Costa Rica they don’t need any coyote to take them across the country, because (…) they follow an immigration procedure.”

The procedure includes a document that is issued to each migrant registered by General Bureau of Immigration and Foreigner’s Issues (Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería), indicating, among other data, their present undocumented, irregular status, and allowing them to move freely throughout the country.

This “has allowed the country to absorb the impact of these irregular, unwelcomed migrations (…) without causing a crisis,” he said.

According to Herrera, it is necessary to make institutional changes “in a way that, when these situations occur, they don’t turn into crises  — or that they are crises that can be managed —, which is what we are aiming at in this whole situation.”

Caught in a highly complex and unwanted scenario, one that is quite likely to go on for some time, Costa Rican authorities are searching for possible solutions, which are of a regional nature, Herrera pointed out.

According to the minister, “that’s why we’ve activated mechanisms of the OAS [Organization of American States] (…) of CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States], that’s why the president recently attended the ACS [Association of Caribbean States] summit and referred to thins issue, because solutions must be of a regional nature.”

This could include using diplomacy in order to reach regional agreements, or the possibility of other countries accepting the migrants, and more broadly, involving international organizations in more effectively fighting against trafficking in people, he pointed out.

In his view, another solution could be resorting to “some mechanism of a humanitarian nature [through which] Costa Rica might authorize them (…) to stay here, in the country, for some time, with an option to work. But it must also be clearly stated that there is a reality, and it is that, these people, what they want is to cross the border.” —Latinamerica Press.


Costa Rican government guarantees humanitarian attention to African migrants at Paso Canoas Fair Ground camp. / Press Department of the Presidency of the Republic
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