MEXICO CITY – The first of 8,000 Cuban migrants recently stranded in Central America have crossed the Mexican border into the United States.
Some 180 migrants flew from Costa Rica to El Salvador, and have been making their way to the U.S., with the first reaching Laredo, Texas, on Thursday night.
"I'm a Cuban who has just acquired the American Dream," said Daniel Caballero, one of the first to cross into Laredo, according to a Facebook posting of the sponsoring non-profit group, Cubans in Liberty.
"It is the greatest happiness," said Liliande Gonzalez, 20, according to the same video.
The migrants spent several months in Costa Rica after Nicaraguan authorities closed the border on Nov. 13. With the bottleneck, both Ecuador and Costa Rica stopped issuing visas to Cubans, who want to reach the U.S. before it changes its migration policy with the thawing of relations with Cuba.
Cubans currently only need to set foot on U.S. soil to gain entry. The Nicaraguan government criticized the U.S. policy for causing a big wave of migration.
After several tries, Central American leaders finally agreed to deal with thousands of Cubans in makeshift camps and shelters by agreeing to fly them to El Salvador on Tuesday, where they went overland to Mexico. They were given permission to cross Mexico for humanitarian reasons.
The initial 180 traveled together to Mexico as part of a pilot program, then went in smaller groups to the U.S. border.
"I'm anxious to get there," Alexei Oliva told The Associated Press at the airport in Mexico City as he was about to fly to the border city of Matamoros before crossing into Texas.
He left Cuba Oct. 27 for Ecuador, where he did computer work to earn money for the trip.
"Imagine, three months to achieve what's about to happen. It's exciting," Oliva said.
The Cubans said they were treated well in Mexico, a contrast to the stream of Central American migrants fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries who are hit by extortion, robbery and kidnapping by organized crime groups and immigration agents. Some die or disappear along the route.
Cubans paid for their own trips, including the flights from Costa Rica to El Salvador. Many of them cashed in all their belongings and traveled with their life savings to reach the U.S.
Central American governments will evaluate the pilot program in the next few days for the rest of the migrants, said Kathya Rodriguez, Costa Rica's migration director. She estimates they will need 28 more flights to move all the stranded Cubans out of shelters.