(CNSNews.com) - The United States is "encouraging" -- but not warning -- Central American nations to stop flying Cuban citizens to northern Mexico, making it easier for them to cross into the United States illegally.
A State Department official told Congress on Tuesday that the U.S. engages with Central American nations, "encouraging them to ensure safe, legal and orderly migration."
But in recent months, tens of thousands of people have fled Cuba, heading to the United States by way of Central America.
"Earlier this year, Costa Rica and Panama worked with the government of Mexico and did airlift almost 8,000 Cuban migrants from both countries to the northern part of Mexico, where they crossed into the United States," Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Francisco "Paco" Palmieri told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee.
"Costa Rica took the step at that time of making it clear that after that backlog was addressed, that they were going to be more aggressive in enforcing their immigration laws and returning people to their last point of origin.
"We now see an additional backlog of these (Cuban) migrants in Panama, and there is now...talk of another possible airlift between Panama and Mexico."
Palmieri said the State Department continues to "urge" Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico "to enforce their migration laws, to strengthen their border controls, and to address undocumented and irregular migration by returning people to their last point of origin. We think that is the best way to--"
"Have we said to them, do not airlift people?" Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked Palmieri.
Rubio said the minute word gets out that Cubans will be put on a plane and flown close to the U.S. border, more of them will head to Central America. "You're encouraging more people to do this," he said.
Palmieri repeated, "We have worked with all three countries to ensure that they are going to strengthen their border controls and put in place better mechanisms to prevent this undocumented and irregular--"
"That's the future, but what about the current backlog?" Rubio interrupted. "Have we told them, do not airlift these people?"
"We have encouraged the countries of the region themselves to figure out the best solution to this surge of migration," Palmieri responded. "And we believe the best solution is a stronger enforcement of their own immigration law--"
"We haven't told them not to do the airlift," Rubio said.
"We have not told them not to do the airlift, sir," Palmieri said.
Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who make it to U.S. soil may pursue legal residency after they've been here for one year.
Rubio said he's heard that the recent surge in Cuban migration is prompted by fears that the Cuban Adjustment Act will go away, now that the Obama administration has reopened diplomatic ties with Havana.
"We have no plans to change the Cban Adjustment Act at this time, Senator," Palmieri said. (Rubio noted that only Congress could change the law.)
Palmieri said the Cuban migration surge reflects difficult economic and human rights conditions in Cuba.