- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

EL PASO, Texas (AP) - The first wave of what could become thousands of Cuban refugees have begun arriving in El Paso and across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as relations between the United States and Cuba continue to normalize and Cubans fear losing their special status as immigrants, officials said.

The El Paso Times (http://bit.ly/1WuBkix ) reports a group of more than 200 Cuban migrants arrived Monday in Juarez on two flights from Panama, Mexico’s foreign ministry said, and all of them will ultimately make their way to El Paso.

Officials with the El Paso’s Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services said Wednesday that two planes with at least 150 Cubans are expected to arrive in Juarez daily, resulting in about 3,500 or more refugees who need assistance to get to their final destinations.

Melissa Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, said many Cubans are leaving their country, fearing the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 will end.

“Now that Cuban diplomatic relations in the United States have improved, people are scared that they are going to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act. The Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans to apply for residency one year after they have been paroled or admitted to the United States. They are really scared that they will do away with the law and if they do, they will get stuck living in a very oppressive country,” Lopez said.

In early 2015, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that the countries would restore diplomatic relations - relations that had been severed in 1961. Obama visited Cuba in March, taking a step further toward normalization.

However, the U.S. trade embargo requires congressional approval to be lifted and experts say that is unlikely to happen soon.

After arriving in Juarez, Cuban migrants cross the border and are taken to the Houchen Community Center for registration and processing. An estimated 300 people were processed from Monday to Wednesday, including men, woman and children, officials said.

On Wednesday afternoon, nearly all of the 50 Cubans outside the center were talking on their cellphones, calling relatives in the United States or Cuba.

After processing, the migrants are then taken to centers such as the San Pablo Lutheran Church, officials said. Migrants eventually will be sent to places like Denver, Michigan, Florida and other destinations of their choosing.

At the centers, they get a room that houses up to four people as they await the next step in their journey.

Some 10 percent to 15 percent might not be able to continue without some assistance and will stay in the El Paso area, officials said.

The Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services is the only agency in El Paso that can aid the Cubans with the Refugee Cash Assistance Program, a federally funded program that can help with cash, completion of the Work Authorization application and employment services.

Lopez stressed that the organization might become overwhelmed quickly because of the influx of Cubans and the limited amount of funds.

“We are funded based on the three-year average of Cubans served. Three years ago we saw 60 Cubans. Last year we served 100 Cubans, and there are other refugee families that are eligible aside from Cubans,” she said.

Lopez could not say how many Cubans her office could assist, but she did say she recommends they apply for the benefits in their destination cities because the program is available throughout the country.

“Cities that have a larger number of refugees like Houston will have a lot more resources and more ability to do more things,” she said.

El Paso Catholic Diocese Bishop Mark J. Seitz said he is frustrated with the lack of communication from government officials on the arrival of the Cuban refugees. In an agreement between Panama and Mexico, Panama is flying thousands of U.S.-bound Cubans to Mexico after being stranded in Central American for weeks or months due to closed borders.

“There has been no official communication. Most of our word that we received is from the refugees themselves,” he said.

“What happens once they are left at the bridge, people who have never been in this country, who have little to no resources, being dropped off on our streets with no place to go and nothing to eat and no way to get a change of clothes? We’re concerned about them and we think it’s the government’s responsibility, especially the federal government, to communicate with us about these people and in some way to assist,” Seitz said.

Similar to a couple of years ago when Central American immigrants were being processed in El Paso, Annunciation House and other shelters are relying on other organizations to help provide shelter to the Cubans.

Pastor Karl Heimer of San Pablo Lutheran Church was one of the pastors who opened the church doors to about 80 Cuban immigrants Tuesday.

Heimer said many of the immigrants are educated Cubans, many in their late 20s and older, who want to find employment in the United States.

“These are people who want to find jobs and can accomplish it,” he said.

___

Information from: El Paso Times, http://www.elpasotimes.com

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