Year’s bad Caribbean storms could send refugees toward U.S., experts say
The land of opportunity has been America’s calling card since the country’s inception.
Now, with several major storms having torn through the Caribbean this hurricane season, some wonder how many people will take the proverbial leap to pursue their own slice of the American dream — at the possible cost of their lives.
And how long it will be before they do so.
“It’s the same situation from after (Hurricane) Mitch,” said Howard Smith, assistant professor of political science at Florida Gulf Coast University. “A lot of people have lost access to their means of economic stability ... especially farmers. They’ll see the proximity of the United States as an opportunity to take a new direction.”
After Hurricane Mitch ravaged Central America in 1998, the U.S. saw a jump in illegal migration into the country.
Smith said he anticipates that conditions in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Fay and hurricanes Gustav, Hannah and Ike will affect immigration patterns. That’s especially true with the significant rains and flooding in Haiti, he said.
“Haiti and Cuba have taken the brunt of the damage,” said Smith, whose study areas include border security, immigration issues and homeland-national security. “I think we should expect to see an uptick, or at least an attempt from immigrants from those countries.”
Unlike with illegal immigrants from Central America — who for the most part opted to cross into this country via the U.S.-Mexico border — it’s harder to trek across the water boundary than the land boundary.
Even so, the potential for migration hasn’t escaped federal officials, who say they know what the damaging hurricane season could mean to border security.
“We are aware that external forces do have an effect on immigration,” said supervisory agent Jason Ciliberti with Customs and Border Protection.
If an individual Customs and Border sector determines there is an increase in coastal border crossing attempts, Ciliberti said, the Department of Homeland Security has a system in place to respond accordingly.
According to Naples businessman John Parke Wright IV, the tragedy of the situation is that U.S. doesn’t have warm diplomatic relations with the affected governments.
Wright, who has done business with Cuba for the past 10 years, said it is especially true with America’s travel restrictions to that country.
He said U.S. policy not only separates families, but also forces some to seriously consider taking their chances with the open seas in hopes of reaching Florida and the American dream.
“It creates this very dangerous alternative,” said Wright, adding that some Cubans might try to take advantage of the wet foot-dry foot policy.
The wet-foot dry-foot policy is the term used for a 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. The policy allows most Cubans who reach American soil to remain in the U.S., while those intercepted at sea are generally returned home.
The fact that some fear Cubans will be flocking to the U.S. wasn’t surprising to East Naples resident Jorge Nuñez.
“That’s what some are saying,” said Nuñez, 37, in Spanish. “That it could be another massive exodus, like in the 90s.”
Prior to the 1995 Adjustment Act revision, the U.S. admitted Cubans rescued at sea, also known as balseros, and had seen a mass migration from the island totaling upward of 30,000.
But Nuñez added that not everyone in the Southwest Florida’s Cuban Diaspora believes that Cubans will be lining up to try to cross the Florida Straits.
“There are people that want to come, but there also are people that don’t want to come,” said Nuñez, a Cuban expatriate. “And many that have come to the U.S. opted to return to Cuba.”
Although Cuba may not be accepting storm aid from the U.S. government, Nuñez said, other countries are sending aid.
Through local churches and civic groups on the east coast, aid would get to the Cuban people, he said.
Meanwhile in Haiti, desperation has settled in as relief efforts were hampered by the destruction of major transportation arteries.
“Southern Haiti has become an isolated pocket of misery,” Hope for Haiti executive director Dorothy Pullen said.
Pullen said she has heard from colleagues of the Naples-based nonprofit in Haiti who have learned that some people already have started walking toward the Dominican Republic to escape hardship.
But Haitian immigrants face an even more uncertain future even if they make it to either the Dominican Republic or America.
Haiti isn’t listed among the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ processing priority list, while those attempting to enter the U.S. illegally are disqualified from applying for refugee status and face repatriation.
Haitians also face the possibility of deportation in the Dominican Republic.