Q24N (The Guardian) As if it were promoting tourist excursions, a banner above a bureau de change by a border crossing in Laredo offers bus trips to some of the region’s most notable landmarks: its immigrant detention centres.
But the spectre of incarceration is not a worry for the growing numbers of migrants who mount the steps to Alejandro Ruiz’s office above the money exchange, just along from a fried chicken joint and a garish pawn shop. His patrons are Cuban and they enjoy a special status that contrasts with the way that Mexican and Central American asylum-seekers are treated by US authorities.
Thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, Cubans who reach the US are quickly allowed in and set on a fast track to benefits, permanent residency and ultimately citizenship. Arrivals from other nations are processed rather differently: their claims to stay are often treated with scepticism; they may be swiftly deported or detained in harsh conditions for weeks. Even if they are released to family in the US while their cases are pending, it will almost certainly be years before they can appear before an immigration judge.
As relations between the US and Cuba have thawed since 2014, migrant numbers have increased dramatically as a result of fears the policy will soon end.
Though the US government has given no indication it will shut the door, news of Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba next week has farther encouraged the influx through Mexico into Texas, said Ruiz, a 50-year-old Cuban American who owns a car repair business and runs Cubanos en Libertad, a not-for-profit organisation that helps with shelter, transportation and navigating bureaucracy as migrants embark on their US lives.
A Pew Research Center analysis of government data found that 43,159 Cubans entered the US officially in fiscal year 2015, two-thirds of them via Laredo, the busiest inland port in the US. That is a 78% increase over the previous year and nearly six times more than in 2011. Ruiz’s own figures put the number of Cubans passing through Laredo last month at between 3,500 and 4,000.
For a nation of only 11 million, these are high numbers: for context, in fiscal year 2015 the US admitted 70,000 refugees from around the world, while in 2013 (the latest year for which figures are available) the US granted asylum to 25,199 people.
The numbers are breeding resentment in this 96% Hispanic city of 250,000, which, like other border communities, has witnessed a surge in Central American families and unaccompanied children fleeing violence – and heard Republican presidential hopefuls bloviate about building a mighty border wall and expelling the country’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. All the while, the government carries on rolling out the equivalent of a welcome mat to natives of the Caribbean island because of a 50-year-old law.
“Folks are asking for fair play in the sense that they want everybody to be treated the same. Nobody gets any preferential treatment,” said Henry Cuellar, the district’s Democratic US congressman.
“The problem is, they don’t understand because they don’t know the history of Cuba,” said Ruiz on a recent evening, sitting at his desk in front of a vintage wall poster of a plane soaring over Manhattan’s financial district.
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He said that the socialist rulers make individual prosperity all but impossible, leaving Cubans uniquely deserving of a shot at the American dream.
“They don’t want people to be successful in Cuba,” he said. “In Mexico you can do it, starting with nothing.”
He clutched a letter bearing good news for Santiago, a 48-year-old who arrived in south Texas in November and was sent Ruiz’s way by a church in the Rio Grande Valley. The federal government had approved his work permit application – quickly, too.
“I came looking for a better life,” Santiago said. In Cuba, he was an attorney. Two years ago he left for Uruguay, which he said was a good and welcoming country. There he worked security at a Montevideo department store and a Nissan dealership.
Under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy adopted by the Clinton administration, Cuban migrants caught at sea by US law enforcement are returned to their homeland but those on shore can stay. This makes the land route attractive, even though journeying through south and central America takes days and is risky along routes controlled by smugglers linked to cartels.
In 2012, the Cuban government scrapped its “tarjeta blanca” exit visa, making it easier for citizens to travel abroad. So many Cubans flew to Ecuador as a starting point that the country said it would introduce visa requirements. Some 8,000 became stranded in Costa Rica when Nicaragua refused to let them through.
Santiago was “looking for freedom and a better life”. Though he liked Uruguay, he felt it was too expensive, so he headed north with three friends. He said that after 24 hours of background checks at the US-Mexico frontier, he was in – and he is ready to do “any job” in the US.
Downstairs, Dasmany, a 28-year-old who crossed a couple of months ago, swayed his body to the rhythm of the Cuban pop music blaring out from a loudspeaker and waited to greet any new arrivals.
There was one around 9pm: a young, tired-looking woman rolling a small suitcase across the narrow street from the checkpoint’s exit walkway to the bright white lights of Ruiz’s headquarters. She talked on her mobile phone, arranging what would be a more than 24-hour bus ride through the American south to link up with relatives in Miami – a city less than 230 miles away from Havana.