MIAMI -- Caught between immigration policy changes championed by two very different administrations, a record number of Cubans are now fighting deportation, as they try to gain asylum in the United States.
The Trump administration opened deportation proceedings against 25,044 Cubans in fiscal year 2019, mostly asylum seekers at the U.S. border, according to data from immigration courts obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University,
About 20,000 of those cases remain pending.
Those figures reflect a considerable increase in the number of Cubans trying to reach the U.S. compared to the trends in the first two years of the current administration. They also stand as a sharp reminder of the different reality Cuban immigrants now face after losing benefits that previously protected them from deportation.
In the final days of his administration, in January 2017, as part of the process of normalizing relations with the Cuban government, President Barack Obama eliminated the "wet foot, dry foot" policy that allowed Cubans arriving at the border to remain legally in the U.S. under a special authorization known as parole.
The Trump administration reversed many of the measures taken by Obama, but not the elimination of that legal protection, despite launching a fierce campaign of sanctions and criticisms against the repressive actions of the Cuban government.
The number of Cubans reaching the southern border peaked in 2016 when U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported the arrival of 41,523 Cubans. Then, Obama's decision, as well as the current administration's restrictive immigration policies, managed to stem the flow, and the figure dropped sharply to just 7,079 in fiscal year 2018.
But a worsening economic crisis on the island has prompted a new exodus of Cubans, even as the situation on the border changed dramatically.
According to CBP figures, more than 21,499 Cubans arrived without visas at the Mexican border in fiscal 2019. The fiscal year begins on Oct. 1and ends on Sept. 30.
Weak economic growth, aggravated by the ongoing crisis in Venezuela and a flurry of U.S. sanctions, "continues driving a considerable amount of Cuban citizens abroad, especially to South Florida," said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at the Florida International University.