TURBO, Colombia— The Obama administration's sudden decision to cancel the wet-foot/dry-foot immigration policy could have dire consequences for thousands of Cubans who are currently on a long and perilous overland journey to the U.S.
Many of these immigrants have already endured hunger, robberies and corrupt border guards as they try to make it from South America to the U.S. Now they might have to try to sneak across the U.S. border illegally—something no Cuban has done for more than 20 years.
In Turbo, a dusty port near Colombia's border with Panama, some 30 Cubans spent Friday morning outside the local immigration office asking Colombian authorities to provide them with a travel permit that would allow them to board a boat to Panama. The immigrants say they're undeterred by the U.S.' repeal of wet-foot/dry-foot, a policy that gave Cubans guaranteed U.S. residency once they reached American soil.
“There's no turning back,” said Orlando de la Guardia, a former restaurant worker who heard about the policy change as he arrived in Turbo last night. “If we have to camp out at the U.S border and protest so they let us in, then that's what we will do.”
De la Guardia said he began his journey on Dec. 17 by taking a flight from Havana to Guyana, the only country on the continent that allows Cubans to enter without a visa. Then, like many of his compatriots, De La Guardia started the long overland journey through Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. He still has to travel through five more countries, some of which he'll cross illegally, before getting to the U.S.
“I don't know if Obama understands the sacrifices we make,” said De La Guardia. “He should have at least warned us that he was going to change this.”
Yisel Vanegas, another Cuban migrant waiting for a travel permit in Turbo, said that she was making $20 a month as an engineer in Cuba. She had to sell her house to finance her trip to the U.S. Vanegas said she'd be willing to cross into the U.S. illegally if that's what it takes.
“I have nothing to return to in Cuba, not even a home anymore,” she said. “We've already had to bribe border guards and cross into several countries illegally, so we will continue to do that.”
The Obama administration said on Thursday that it was canceling the wet-foot/dry-foot policy as the next step toward normalizing relations with Cuba, a process that began in 2015 when the two countries re-established diplomatic ties. The policy was cancelled immediately to prevent a chaotic wave of migration from the island.
The Department of Homeland Security said that it will work with Cuban authorities to organize an “orderly” immigration process that includes 20,000 resident visas each year. Cubans will now be treated the same as every other immigrant from Latin America who wants to go to the U.S.
But that puts thousands of Cubans who are already en route to the U.S. in a very difficult situation because they'd have to backtrack to their island to apply for a visa. Most of them don't have money to return, and few have faith in the U.S. immigration bureaucracy.
Francisco Rodriguez, another Cuban migrant in Turbo, says he attempted to ask for a visa at the U.S. consulate in Havana before leaving the island, but was told to wait until 2025 for an appointment.
“I might not be even be able to get work by then,” said the 50-year-old man. “I need to do something with my life now.”
The number of Cubans entering the U.S. without visas had doubled over the past two years, since the re-establishment of diplomatic ties. Many immigrants said they made the trip out of fear that the U.S. would eventually cancel wet-foot/dry-foot immigration benefits as part of the normalization of relations.
The administration also revoked the Medical Parole Program, a policy which made it easy for Cuban medical professionals who are currently working in third countries to move to the U.S. Cuban officials had been pressuring the U.S to cancel that program for years, claiming it was “draining” the country's talent.
In Colombia's capital, a group of Cuban doctors who applied for the program several weeks ago staged a protest urging the U.S. embassy to not cancel their applications.
“If we go back to Cuba we won't be allowed to work in our profession,” said Michael Palacios, one of the doctors. “We'd rather stay here than go back home.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.