2:23 p.m. Feb. 12 by Julia Preston / (c)2016 The New York Times
Cuban immigrants are crossing from Mexico into Texas by the hundreds each day.
Some in Laredo question why Cubans get special treatment denied to Mexican and Central American migrants.
A fast-rising influx of Cubans are crossing the border into Texas by the hundreds each day, approved to enter the United States in a matter of hours.
They walk out to a Laredo street and are greeted by volunteers from Cubanos en Libertad, or Cubans in Freedom, a nonprofit. The volunteers help them arrange travel to their U.S. destination — often Miami — and start applying for work permits and such federal benefits as food stamps and Medicaid, available by law to Cubans immediately after their arrival.
Cubans wait on the steps of Cubanos en Libertad for family members to pass through the port of entry in Laredo on Tuesday. More Cubans are entering the U.S. through Texas under a law passed in 1966, fueling tensions at the border, where comparable Mexican and Central American immigrants are detained and sent to immigration court. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times)
“Right now I feel like the freest Cuban in the whole world,” said Rodny Nápoles, 39, a coach of the Cuban national women’s water polo team who crossed into Laredo this week.
The friendly reception given the Cubans, an artifact of hostile relations with the Castro government, is a stark contrast with the treatment of Central American families fleeing violence in their countries. And it is creating tensions in this predominantly Mexican-American city, where residents saw how Central American migrants, who came in an influx in 2014, were detained by the Border Patrol and ordered to appear in immigration courts.
Lissi Chavez, who works for Cubanos en Libertad, helps a recently arrived Cuban activate his Lone Star welfare benefits card in Laredo on Wednesday. Unlike most immigrants coming from Mexico or Central America, any Cuban who sets foot on U.S. soil is given permission to enter and is eligible for federal welfare benefits, including financial assistance, for nine months. After a year, such Cubans can apply for permanent residency, a gateway to citizenship. (Ilana Panich-Linsman / The New York Times)
“The people here are starting to feel resentment,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. “They are asking, is it fair that the Cubans get to stay and the Central Americans are being deported?”
Town officials have warned Cubans not to loiter in the streets. Local bus companies complain that Cubans are chartering special vans to travel.
Milton Borges Gonzalez, a Cuban currently living in Houston, greets his pregnant wife, Lisbeth Torres, who is holding a Cuban passport, after waiting for her all day for her to get through the port of entry in Laredo on Tuesday. More Cubans are entering the country under a 1966 law that is an artifact of hostile relations with the Castro government. It is creating a disparity at the border where Central Americans are detained and sent to immigration court. (Ilana Panich-Linsman / The New York Times)
A group of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq held two protests by the border bridge in recent weeks, saying the federal government was spending money on Cubans when it was not meeting the needs of people here.
“We make everyone from Central America wait in line, while the Cubans walk in even though they are not refugees,” said Gabriel Lopez, a Mexican-American Navy veteran who is president of the group of veterans. “We are saying, don’t open the borders to Cubans and give them instant benefits while we have American veterans living on the streets.”
In coming weeks the number of Cubans is expected to spike, as more than 5,000 who have been stalled in Costa Rica since late last year will leave there on regular plane flights agreed to by governments in Central America and Mexico. Already about 12,100 Cubans entered through Laredo and other Texas border stations in the last three months of 2015, according to official figures. Border officials say as many as 48,000 Cubans could cross here this year, more than all those who came in the last two years combined.
Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, a law Congress passed in 1966, any Cuban who sets foot on U.S. soil is given permission to enter. Cubans are also eligible for federal welfare benefits, including financial assistance for nine months under separate polices from the 1980s. After a year, they can apply for permanent residency, a gateway to citizenship.
The recent exodus from Cuba began in mid-2014, even before President Barack Obama in December of that year announced a restoration of diplomatic relations with its communist government. In a major change, President Raúl Castro allowed Cubans to leave the country without exit visas. Many Cubans have said that rumors that special entry to the U.S. would be canceled had caused them to pack up and go.
“The rumors are unfounded,” Alan Bersin, assistant homeland security secretary, said in an interview, seeking to dispel the fears. “The Cuban Adjustment Act is still in effect and is part of the overall immigration policy and there is no intent presently to change that.”
At the border, Cubans are fingerprinted and pass through routine criminal and terrorism background checks. There is no special vetting for Cubans, and there are no medical examinations or vaccination requirements.
This week, the first direct flights from Costa Rica to the Mexican city just across the border brought more than 300 Cubans, including at least 41 pregnant women and their families.
One of them, Yadelys Rodríguez Martín, 28, who was 19 weeks pregnant, said she was stunned by how quickly she had been admitted into the U.S.
“We are not used to things happening so fast,” Rodríguez said.
No threat of persecution or attack had driven her to leave, Rodríguez said. Like many Cubans arriving here, she left, she said, to escape a moribund economy. As a civil engineer, she was earning the equivalent of $25 a month.
But Laredo residents recall the days in 2014 when women and children from Central America, who said they were fleeing murderous criminal gangs, were packed in frigid detention cells here. With no blanket admission, they faced uphill battles in court to win asylum that often ended in deportation.
“People are not saying, ‘Don’t let the Cubans in,’” said Ricardo de Anda, a Laredo lawyer and rancher who helped mobilize aid for the Central Americans. “They are pointing out the irony of an immigration system that allows them to come in at will and causes so much hardship to others.”
But at the border station, one Cuban, Milton Borges González, 38, knew only that he was “the happiest man on earth” when his pregnant wife, Lisbeth Torres, emerged. He had arrived before her and was living in Houston.
“I came to work,” Borges said, “and here they let you work and they pay you if you work. The United States gives us a lot of help because we are Cubans,” he said. “Thank God for that.”