For two decades, Cubans had an advantage over other migrants: Thanks to a Clinton-era open door policy, they could come to the United States without a visa, receive asylum automatically, and be on track for permanent residency. The program was commonly know as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. In essence, it meant Cubans who were intercepted at sea with "wet feet" would be sent back to the island, but those who reached U.S. soil and had "dry feet" could stay.
When the Obama administration started to normalize relations with the Cuban government in December 2014, more and more Cubans started to flee their country because they feared the policy would end. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, almost 24,300 Cubans came to the U.S. via ports of entry in 2014. That number jumped to over 43,150 people in 2015, and then to about 56,400 in 2016.
Photographer Lisette Poole captured the migrant experience of two Cuban women, Liset and Marta, as they traveled from Havana to Texas. The harrowing journey took them across 13 countries during a 48-day period, and they were two of the last Cubans to benefit from the policy.
When asked what inspired her, Poole told Refinery29, "I really saw it as just part of the modern reality or everyday experience for most Cuban people."
She said she took a flight with Liset and Marta from Havana, Cuba, to Guyana in May 2016. From there, the journey took them through 11 other countries: Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and finally, the U.S. One of the most dangerous parts was crossing the Darien Gap, a remote jungle swath that divides Colombia and Panama. This corridor is used often by drug traffickers from the two neighboring countries. In total, Poole said they crossed 10 of the borders illegally.
"Their future was very much out of their hands, really, from one day to the next, or sometimes one minute to the next," she said. "It was really impossible to plan and a lot of what they were doing was dependent upon other people. Many times there were long periods of waiting that were sort of interlaced with anxiety while not knowing what was going to happen. And so a long time of waiting would suddenly be interrupted by having to run with everything they owned from one place to the next, or a car, or a bus, or something."
There were other physical challenges, too, like when Marta, who is 52, got hurt early in the journey. But for Poole, the emotional toll of those two months was as hard as the physical one.
"I think just the uncertainty can be really hard, and the fact that so much is out of their control, she said. "Even though Liset and Marta were lucky and nothing happened to them, there are hundreds and thousands of cases of people who are robbed or raped or killed on these journeys, or left behind. So there's a lot of fear involved that something could happen to them at any moment."
As someone of Cuban descent herself, the journey and the overall project made Poole feel closer to her roots. It also showed her that Cuban women are strong beyond words, pushing through great dangers in order to achieve their goals.
"They had this incredible resilience to them. They found ways to laugh, and enjoy themselves, and find humor in what was happening, even though it was terrifying for them sometimes," she said. "What I saw was what I know of Cuban women: They're really resilient and they will find a way to make things work, and to survive, and to get through whatever it is that they need to in order to move forward."
When asked what she wants people to take away from seeing her photos, Poole was honest on how the project ties into to the current climate surrounding the issue of immigration.
"I just hope that [people] find a way to relate to these women. I hope that the photos offer a personal look at what the migrant experience is like. Marta and Liset have sort of a unique story, in a way, because they're Cuban and because of policy and because their reasons for migrating are different from others," she said. "But at the same time they're not, because they're trying to make a better life for themselves and a better future for themselves, and they were in a moment where they felt desperate to do that, and so this is what it looked like."
She added, "I really hope that if even one person who is leaning towards these new immigration policies that are happening or, you know, if even someone who has sort of an anti-immigration sentiment sees this, and it humanizes that experience, I would feel that I did my job."