Twenty Cuban refugees were discovered outside the entrance to the Chenay Bay Beach Resort early Sunday morning.
Customs and Border Protection officials were notified of a possible illegal landing at 6:12 a.m. in Coakley Bay, just east of the resort, according to Jeffrey Quinones, a public affairs officer with CBP.
This is the second group of Cuban refugees to arrive on the east end of St. Croix in the last three months. On March 15, a group of 14 Cubans came ashore seeking asylum.
Quinones said the group comprised 13 men, six women and one child. They were picked up by authorities and transported to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service office in Sunny Isle for processing, he said.
The refugees will be able to apply for permanent legal residency a year from now under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, a law that extends protection to Cuban refugees who reach American soil, but that dictates those captured at sea should be sent back to Cuba or a third nation unless there is clear evidence of persecution.
The refugees are currently residing at St. Joseph’s High School and being cared for by a collection of churches and charities.
Marla Matthew of the American Red Cross said she sent caseworkers to assess the needs of the refugees and has provided them with “comfort kits” that include deodorant, toiletries and other personal care items.
The Sunny Acres Seventh-day Adventist Church is providing fresh clothing and the Salvation Army has offered to help provide food to the refugees.
The refugees are also getting support from St. Croix’s small Cuban community. Barbara Guerra, a private resident, is working closely with the group and said she accompanied them to the immigration office today.
Guerra said their cases were open and they would need to be interviewed before being cleared to stay in the country, though it appears St. Croix won’t be their final destination. She said the refugees all had family already living in the United States.
“The families have already been in touch with them,” she said. “The families want to be reunited with them.”
Guerra said she could only remember one other instance of such a large group of Cubans arriving on St. Croix, which she believes happened in 2005.
“After that we had one or two, but not this amount,” she said.
Carlos Hidalgo, pastor of the Sunny Acres Seventh-day Adventist Church and a member of St. Croix’s Cuban community, also said he was surprised to see two large groups of refugees arrive here, but he said it made sense.
He said he believes it has become easier for Cubans to defect since the Cuban government loosened foreign travel restrictions for its citizens in January of this year. Cubans can now leave the country with a passport alone and no longer need special permission from the government.
“This is not going to be the last one,” Hidalgo said. “I believe more of them are coming.”
It remains unclear whether the refugees arrived on St. Croix in their own vessel or were dropped off by a smuggler.
Quinones said CPD “does not have information from the migrants as to their point of departure,” and he declined to answer whether a boat was recovered at the landing site or not.