TAPACHULA, Mexico, May 6 (UPI) -- Thousands of anxious, undocumented Cuban migrants lined up Monday outside an immigration office in Tapachula, Mexico, expecting finally to be allowed to apply for exit visas to travel to the U.S. border.
Many had been waiting since the office was closed two months ago after a protest by Cuban migrants damaged the facility. Without an exit visa, the migrants could not legally leave the city.
"The moment we heard the government was about to reopen this office my wife and I came here to get a place in the line to apply for an exit visa," David Sandino, 28, a migrant from Havana, said Sunday afternoon.
"Without the exit visa, Mexico can deport us. Deportation is the worst thing that could happen to us," Sandino said.
He and his wife have been waiting in Tapachula for a month, diminishing their limited funds.
"We don't want to stay in Mexico. Our objective is the United States," Sandino said. "I have family in New Orleans and Miami who are expecting us."
Mexico's immigration authorities said they started to issue exit visas for Cubans on Monday morning.Exit visa wait list
The Sandinos, like thousands of other migrants from Cuba and elsewhere, have been stranded in Tapachula since Mexico's government shuttered the immigration office on March 15, when 500 Cuban migrants stormed the offices, damaging the facility.
"Can't you see from our faces just how desperate we are," said Javier Valdez, a Cuban migrant in charge of keeping the exit visa wait list. "Some people I know have been in Tapachula for two months."
Valdez said he decided to organize the wait list to ensure there is not a repeat of the earlier disturbance.
"We want everything to be orderly," he said.
Early Monday morning, Valdez was still registering Cubans in his notebook. His wait list for visa appointments had grown to 1,446.Fearing deportation from Mexico
Mexico's interior minister, Olga Sanchez Cordero, has said migrants can avoid deportation if they register with the National Migration Institute and respect Mexican law.
Undocumented Cuban migrants face a real threat of deportation from Mexico. In the past week, Mexico has deported several hundred Cuban migrants from Tapachula who, officials said, were involved in an escape attempt two weeks ago from a nearby migrant detention center.
"The Mexican immigration agents trick us," said Jorge, a Cuban migrant who refused to give his last name.
"They tell you to come formalize your status and to sign documents, all without a lawyer present," Jorge said. "The next thing you know, you are in detention and that the forms signed were for voluntary repatriation. They take you to the airport where you board a plane saying its bound for Mexico City. You only realize when you land that you are in Cuba and you have been deported."Ready to leave Mexico
When the office reopened Monday, thousands of waiting migrants cheered and applauded.
"I've been waiting in Tapachula for two months now for an exit visa," said María Janes Rodríguez, 35, who used to work as a nurse in Havana and has family in New York. She is 1,206th on the list.
Rodriguez explained why she had to leave Cuba.
"As a nurse, I used to earn $30 a month. There's no future in Cuba," Rodríguez said. "The government violates our political rights. I can't go back there. I sold all my things. What would I go back to? I'm terrified of being deported from Mexico. There's no freedom in Cuba."Family in the U.S.
Many of the Cuban migrants stranded for the past few months in Tapachula have family in the United States and are professionals with university degrees: engineers, doctors, nurses and teachers. The migrants said that if they are deported back to Cuba as professionals, it becomes impossible to find employment.
"The government doesn't allow me to work speaking English with foreign tourists," said Jeridan Mijares Martinez, 33, formerly an English-speaking tour guide from Havana.
"The police caught me three times. The first two times they fined me. I paid several hundred dollars in fines," Mijares said in English. "The third time the police said if they caught me again I would get two to five years in prison. That was two years ago and that's when my wife, Mayleen, and I decided to leave Cuba."
The Mijareses first traveled to Uruguay. They spent two years in Montevideo and even though they have a 2-month-old son who is a Uruguayan citizen, they were unable to obtain immigration papers and so decided to take a plane to Nicaragua to travel north to the United States. The family arrived in Tapachula on April 28 and found themselves stranded because the immigration office was not issuing exit visas.
"We need the exit visa so we can continue our journey to the border with the United States," Mijares said. "If not, we can be deported. Obviously I don't want to go back to Cuba. Almost all my family is in the United States. Some are in Houston but also in Palm Beach, Fla."
Meanwhile, early Sunday, a group of 90 detained Cuban migrants desperate to avoid deportation staged a second escape attempt from Mexico's largest detention center.
"Immigration officers managed to avoid a confrontation," Mexico's National Migration Institute in a statement. "Those who damaged the installations will face criminal charges."