WEST NEW YORK -- A Cuban-born N.J. mayor says that he is helping thousands of Cuban refugees come to America, and has used $200,000 of his own money so far to support refugees during their travels.
West New York Mayor Felix Roque also said at a press conference Tuesday, before a few Spanish-language media outlets and NJ Advance Media, that he is hoping to bring awareness to the refugee crisis in Cuba.
"I haven't seen any resolve from any politician in this country. You've got people like the president say we're going to give ($70) million to the Syrian refugees, but what happens to the Cuban refugees? That has gotten me a little upset," said Roque, who was re-elected this May.
A pain relief doctor, Roque said he went to Costa Rica from Dec. 22 to Dec. 31 to administer medical treatment to 4,000 refugees who were lying outside in a field next to the border, in La Cruz, after passing through Nicaragua. Because their passports were confiscated, they couldn't got to Western Union to take out money, he said: "They had to do their necessities in the streets, like animals. They were sleeping in cardboard boxes."
As West New York's mayor, Roque serves a 78 percent Hispanic town that was once nicknamed "Havana on the Hudson." He said he introduced himself "as a doctor" abroad, since he was not working in his capacity as a public official.
"A lot of people decide to sit back and not do anything about this. To me, this is not political, this is something I did before I even became a mayor," he said, noting that in the past 30 years, he has previously rendered medical aid to people in Armenia, Columbia and Haiti during different crises.
In Nicaragua, refugees were beaten by police and hit with rubber bullets and tear gas, among other atrocities, he said. "I'm sure Castro is behind this," he said.
"Costa Rica is a fantastic country," Roque added. "The (foreign) minister, he's a great guy... but they don't have the infrastructure, they're telling us, to accommodate."
In Costa Rica, Roque met with the country's minister of foreign affairs, Manual Gonzalez Sanz. He also said he directed cameras at authorities, asking how the situation can more be quickly improved. Showing a recent text conversation on his phone, Roque said that he is now friends with the mayor of La Cruz, Alonso Alan Corea.
Roque's plan, he said, (see box at right) will help 7,000 refugees come to the U.S. through Mexico with an expedited $800 travel package that Roque has coordinated with a local travel agency. They will then settle with family in N.J., Houston, Atlanta and elsewhere, he said.
"We're trying to facilitate an easier access to the United States. It's going to be more cost-effective, it's going to be more secure," he said, and it will take "10 hours in comparison to three days."
Already, Roque said, he has used $200,000 of his own money to help with "hotels, clothes, medications, transportation," but "90 percent" of the people are covering the cost of their own international travel. He also set up up a GoFundMe page on Jan. 6, and a website: WWW.LARUTADEROQUE.COM.
According to the Pew Research Center, there has been a sharp increase in immigration in the number of Cubans coming to the U.S. in the past year: 24,278 came in fiscal year 2014, and 43,159 came in fiscal year 2015. Based on the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, Cubans only need only show up at a port of entry and pass an inspection, and after a year in the country, can apply for a green card, the center notes.
An official from the Department of Homeland Security told NJ Advance Media on Wednesday that there has been no change to the policy, and it would be up to Congress to make any changes.
At the press conference, Roque introduced five of the first Cuban refugees who he has helped come to the U.S. after meeting in Costa Rica. The group included a mother, daughter, cousin and two friends, and they introduced themselves as a former accountant, lawyer, a nursing student, journalist and owner of farmland. Speaking in Spanish, each recounted the terror of coming over and criticized the recent deal to warm relations with Cuba.
"She said 'I don't think its going to help. We have an internal problem,'" Roque said in translation for Cuban refugee Noldis Fernandez, 56. "'Everybody believes this is just a big hoax that Castro manipulated to get funding.'"
Asked how he is balancing his new work helping Cuba with his mayoral duties, Roque said "a leader knows how to delegate authority," and that he and his commissioners are "working a tight schedule."
"To tell you the truth, I hardly sleep though," he added.
Below, watch the video appeal on Roque's GoFundMe page: