El Salvador Opens Borders For Cuban Migrants On Way To U.S.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Nearly 8,000 Cubans hoping to enter the United States have been stranded in Costa Rica since November. That was when neighboring Nicaragua, a close ally of Cuba, refused to let them pass through on their journey north. It created a human pileup. But now under a new regional agreement, 180 of them have flown to El Salvador, where they boarded buses that reached Mexico's southern border earlier today. From El Salvador, Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The Cubans arrived at Mexico's southern border around noon this afternoon. With a 20-day visa in hand, they'll now have to figure out for themselves how to cross Mexico to reach their ultimate goal - the U.S. For many, they're just happy to be on their way north again.
ORLANDO PRIEDE: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Orlando Priede, industrial engineer from Cuba, said the mood was festive as the first plane with a 180 migrants got airborne. Everyone, he says, burst into applause. Once on the ground in El Salvador, the authorities wouldn't let reporters interview the migrants. I spoke with Priede via cell phone.
PRIEDE: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Everything has gone smoothly, he says. Thirty-two-year-old Priede, along with the other Cubans, were boarded onto a bus, given food, all the necessary visas and driven to Mexico. The $555 cost for the trip was paid for by the migrants. Still on the phone, Priede and I waved as his bus pulled out of El Salvador's international airport.
It's been a long trip for the Cuban migrants. Most, like Priede, fled Cuba late last year to follow a well-worn route to the U.S. It starts in Ecuador, where, until recently, Cubans didn't a visa, then continues north through Central America, Mexico and to the U.S. Once with both feet on U.S. soil, the Cubans will receive preferential immigration treatment and be allowed in.
Despite improved relations between Cuba and the U.S., the number of migrants fleeing the island has skyrocketed in the past year. Many say they're coming now in fear that the special immigration treatment they receive will soon come to an end. Florida senator and presidential republican candidate Marco Rubio, himself the son of Cuban immigrants, even said as much this week. He introduced legislation to make some modifications to the special privileges awarded Cubans. Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar, whose South Texas district has become the favored crossing point for the Cubans, says all persecuted migrants should be treated equally.
HENRY CUELLAR: The Cubans are coming in because they want political freedom. The Central Americans are coming in because they - many of them fear for their lives of those vicious gangs they have up there. So the sense of fairness is just not there.
KAHN: In El Salvador, where, on average, 2,000 of their citizens are deported from the U.S. every month, the disparate treatments didn't go unnoticed. El Salvador's foreign minister, Hugo Martinez, made a not-so-subtle jab at U.S. immigration policy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HUGO MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: He said here in El Salvador, we will show that we don't have a double standard, referring to allowing the Cubans to pass through their country. He says, we treat all migrants humanely and just wish others would do the same. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Salvador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.