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Record Number Of Migrants, Including Cubans, Head To U.S.


This week, we have explored the challenges of the migrant crisis in Europe, both for the migrants and the countries struggling to take them in. This morning, we're going to focus a bit closer to home, on the U.S.-Mexico border. It's been a focal point for President-elect Donald Trump and inspired some of his most memorable campaign speeches, like this one.

DONALD TRUMP: When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

MARTIN: As NPR's Mexico correspondent, Carrie Kahn, found throughout this year, migration through Central America to the U.S. is so much more than Mexicans or even Central Americans. In the past year, there are record numbers of migrants from Africa and Caribbean nations, like Haiti and Cuba.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: This is a new route for Cubans. For years, they've always come on rafts or makeshift boats through the Florida Straits. This is an incredibly tough journey they're now making, launching from South America, where they could get visas and then, by boat, bus, walking, they go through Central America.

MARTIN: So this seems a little counterintuitive because now that the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba is warming up and tourism is booming in Cuba you would think that migration wouldn't be increasing, that people would want to stay and build lives in Cuba.

KAHN: Definitely, but along with that improvement has really thrown into question whether Cubans should continue to enjoy the special immigration privileges they have. It's unlike any other migrants in the world. If a Cuban makes it to U.S. soil, they are immediately given political asylum. They get to stay in the U.S. So there's just a lot of concern on their part that those privileges that they have may end under the incoming Trump administration.

MARTIN: So that's the Cuban story. You've also, through your reporting, talked to a lot of Africans who have been traveling this now well-trodden migrant route - and a lot of Haitians. What - what is motivating those two groups?

KAHN: Nigerians are fleeing the terror of Boko Haram. And a lot of Congolese I met, too, were fleeing violence there. But it's really the Haitians that are coming in great numbers. After that horrible earthquake in Haiti, they got humanitarian visas to work in Brazil, but the economy there is crashing. And there's a lot of political turmoil, so they're on the move again. And thousands of Haitians are coming now, landing at the Tijuana-San Diego border, asking for asylum.

MARTIN: What happens? I mean, are they granted asylum?

KAHN: OK, this gets complicated because when they first started coming to the border, the U.S. was letting them in on humanitarian reasons, just as they had always done for Haitians. But then the numbers of them got bigger and bigger, so U.S. authorities began detaining them, hoping to deter so many from coming. But then Haiti had this devastating hurricane and it was hard to deport the Haitians. So now the U.S. is back to releasing Haitians and monitoring them on humanitarian grounds. There just aren't as many detention facilities and beds as there are as migrants.

MARTIN: The other group, of course, Carrie, that we have to talk about are unaccompanied minors. A couple of years ago, you actually did this story where you sat down with a teenager from Guatemala who was one of these kids. Let's listen to a little bit of it first.


JORGE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Jorge says, during his journey through Guatemala and Mexico, he rode in cars, a boat, atop a cargo train for three days and finally sat on a bus for 20 hours before reaching Piedras Negras, right across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas.

JORGE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We were put in a house for eight days and given food and everything," the teenager says. Thirty-five other migrants were housed with them. But before they could make the final crossing over the U.S. border, he says Mexican police raided the home. Jorge says he was detained for more than a month in a shelter for underage children, then flown back to Guatemala.

MARTIN: What happened to him? Where is he now?

KAHN: He got to South Texas on his second try, and he asked for asylum. He was put in U.S. detention for 20 days. And then right before Christmas last year, he was released and flown to his father, who lives in upstate New York.

MARTIN: Wow. So he's been living with his dad for a little more than a year. How's he adjusting to life in New York?

KAHN: Well, he's a pretty upbeat kid. I've been watching him through the year. We're Facebook friends. And like a lot of American teens, his page is full of selfies, and he just got a girlfriend, so there's lots of pictures about that. But, Rachel, he's 18 years old now, and he is in the ninth grade because he only finished sixth grade in Guatemala. His mom pulled him out because of the gang troubles and the violence, so that's tough for him. And he's also had three court dates since his detention. And all they are are just perfunctory check-ins because the U.S. immigration courts are terribly overburdened with all these migrants coming. So the process has been really slow.

MARTIN: So he still doesn't know if he can stay.

KAHN: No. They have a court date in September. They're hoping to get a definitive answer, and who knows if they will by then, because of all of the backlog. And I just think this is an interesting question for the incoming Trump administration. It's going to be tough for them to really execute their harder line on immigration.

MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Kahn. Thank you so much, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.