Havana, Cuba – Patri, 24, is hiding $1,100 in a storage ottoman in her bedroom in the Cuban capital of Havana. “It doesn’t look like much, but I’ve been saving it for five years,” the manicurist and makeup artist said, surveying her thin stack of bills.
Patri asked that her last name be omitted for her safety, as privately exchanging Cuban pesos for dollars is technically illegal. To avoid drawing attention to herself, Patri has only informed her father and grandmother of her plans to leave Havana for the United States this year.
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But she has put her trip on hold, at least for the time being, as the result of shifting US immigration policy.
On January 5, Patri was ready to book a flight to Nicaragua, the closest country without a visa requirement for Cubans, and begin the two-week trek to the Mexican border with Texas.
Several friends who arrived in the US the same way had promised to pool together their money and loan her the $8,000 she would need for the journey’s many hostels, bus tickets and bribes. The dollars in her ottoman would serve as a safety net in hard cash in case bank withdrawals proved difficult in Central America.
Then a new law threw her plans out the window.
In January, the administration of US President Joe Biden issued an executive order restricting asylum applications along the country’s southern border. Instead, asylum seekers from four countries — Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Haiti — now have to apply to a “parole process” that allows up to 30,000 refugees and migrants to arrive in the US per month.
But the qualifications are steep. Successful applicants have to pass background checks, possess a valid passport, be able to buy airfare, and demonstrate that they have a sponsor with legal status in the US who can support them financially.
Patri does not have a sponsor. If she goes forward with her original plan, she will be turned away at the Texas border and sent back into Mexico under Title 42, a pandemic-era law also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Title 42 has faced strong criticism from organisations such as the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, which say the policy subverts the legal right to asylum in the US.
Before the executive order came into effect, hundreds of thousands of Cubans like Patri had fled their home country for opportunity in the US. There, US Customs and Border Control estimates that 306,612 Cubans — well over two percent of the island’s entire population — crossed the country’s southern border in 2022, driven primarily by Cuba’s economic collapse.
Many have asked for asylum, but because of the immigration backlog in the US, their cases can sometimes take years to be resolved. Previously, that delay could work to the asylum seekers’ advantage. After one year of residing in the US, Cubans can acquire a green card no matter their legal status through the Cuban Adjustment Act, a pathway to permanent residency.
“Most of my friends left this year, and my boyfriend arrived in Miami just a few days ago. I’m the only one left,” Patri said.
Meanwhile, the cost of living in Cuba remains high, and Patri’s home nail salon is no longer bringing in enough cash to support her ageing relatives. In Cuba, the government provides small amounts of free food to all citizens, but the bulk of food and household items must be purchased in stores with a special card filled with remittances from family abroad.
Those with no family overseas, like Patri, are forced to buy most of their goods from their neighbours at elevated prices. The going rate for 2.3kg (5 lb) of pork is 3,000 Cuban pesos, equal to the average monthly salary — or $19 according to the informal conversion rate on the streets of Havana.
Patri hopes going to the US will afford her better financial opportunities, but in order to navigate the new immigration procedures, she is having to explore new methods of entry.
The first is to join a Facebook group where she can pay thousands of dollars to be matched with a patron in the US, but patrons are in short supply compared with the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants looking for one.
The second is to go to Mexico as she originally planned and wait to apply for an exception to Title 42 through the US government’s new app, CBP One, which would allow her to cross the border on foot.
Adam Isacson from the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights nonprofit, says Patri’s chance of getting one of these exceptions anytime soon is slim. And while she waits, she could be living in dangerous conditions as a migrant in Mexico, vulnerable to extortion, theft, homelessness and kidnapping for ransom.
“The appointments for the Title 42 exceptions are booked two weeks out, and they’re completely full. They get booked up as soon as they become available,” Isacson said. “You also have to meet a list of vulnerability criteria. It’s being compared to buying Taylor Swift tickets — but of course, instead of not going to a concert, you face the risk of death.”
Isacson predicts Cubans will try more creative methods to escape the island under the new restrictions, like launching towards Florida on rafts, known as balseros. “It’s hard to imagine we won’t see a full-blown balsero crisis this year from both Cuba and Haiti,” he explained.
Amelia, a lawyer in Havana who did not want her last name revealed because she clandestinely assists with immigration matters, said the stream of people lining up outside her living-room office to ask for help has been constant since the new US law was announced.
“I haven’t had a free moment yet,” she said. “There are hundreds of them, hundreds and hundreds.” Her desk is piled with folders full of documents pertaining to people she is unable to assist, mostly because they have no means of finding a patron.
Isacson believes the passport requirement is the most harmful aspect of the new restrictions.
“What we’ve done is make gatekeepers out of these sh**** governments,” he said of the asylum seekers’ home countries. “It’s a huge opportunity for anyone in one of those passport offices who wants a bribe. It has become a rich and middle-class migrant program only. And migrants with fewer means are the most threatened.”
Patri is leaning towards travelling to Mexico and planning her next move there, despite the risks. “I have to remain hopeful,” she said. “Because what else do I have?”
As she spoke, she dabbed at a bottle of brown tint, which she expertly swished onto a client’s eyebrows. For this session, she would receive 250 Cuban pesos, less than two dollars.