El Paso, Texas – People in El Paso, used to a constant flow of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, are now seeing a lot of Cubans coming in across the various bridges that connect their town with Ciudad Juarez.
They look pretty much like all others crossing the border, but volunteers here point out a difference: Cuban migrants are eager to get wi-fi access so they can communicate with family still back on the island, with family and friends already in the U.S., and especially with other Cubans behind the border who waiting for their "coast is clear" signal to cross over.
The main fear are robbers and smugglers, said Ray Dominguez, a volunteer with the Houchen Community Center.
"One of them told us he was [part of a group] traveling down a river and they got separated and lost. But the smugglers weren’t waiting for them, they were leaving them behind," said Dominguez.
The Houchen Community Center was one of a handful of community centers in El Paso to take in hundreds of Cuban immigrants in May, when a sudden surge of these migrants first called the attention of the U.S. authorities.
Almost 35,000 Cubans crossed into Texas between October 2015 and July of this year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data provided to Fox News Latino. Nearly 30,000 of those entered through Laredo, while 4,800 came through El Paso — 3,000 of those just in the month of May.
Overall, 46,635 Cuban nationals have entered the U.S. in the last 10 months, CBP reported. That is more than the number of Cubans that entered in all of last year (43,159) and a 78 percent increase from 2014 (24,278).
During El Paso’s Spring 2016 peak, Dominguez and other volunteers stood at all hours at the entrance of the downtown bridges in El Paso, sometimes huddled in blankets to keep warm, to offer help to the newcomers.
Some were being taken advantage of by smugglers who picked them at the border promising a trip to Houston or Miami for $300 and then dropped them in deserted spot in El Paso.
Once word got out about the Houchen volunteers – many of whom started wearing lanyards to be easily identified – Cubans already staying at El Paso shelters would warn them of incoming groups.
“’Hey, there’s a group of 20 coming in an hour’ or ‘10 coming in 10 minutes’,” they would tell Dominguez and the others.
He remains in contact with Cubans he assisted. "A lot of the immigrants wanted to take pictures for their own personal Facebook, a lot of them have friended us,” said Dominguez.
In May, the Catholic Diocese in El Paso opened five temporary shelters tending to the Cuban families, which along with a Lutheran mission provided assistance to some 3,000 Cuban migrants. As of July, some 100 Cubans remained in El Paso.
Elizabeth O’Hara, a spokesperson for the diocese, called the influx “unprecedented” and said that the mostly Mexican-American community of El Paso is rallying together to welcome the newcomers.
“We are a city of migrants,” she said, pointing out that many migrants had been held in Panama unable to cross into Mexico for months at a time.
“[Many] arrived often times without a sponsor and often times with very little means,” she said.
In February, Pope Francis visited Ciudad Juarez, right across the border, and held a public mass where he offered prayers for immigrants who had died along their journey to the United States.
“Anything we can do to foster dialogue, encounter, and the search for better alternatives and opportunities is already an accomplishment to be valued and highlighted,” the pontiff said. “Obviously more needs to be done than dialogue and encounter … This is the only way we will be able to build for tomorrow.”
The sudden surge across the Texas border prompted Rep. Henry Cuellar (D.-TX), whose district includes the border town of Laredo, to co-author the Correcting Unfair Benefits for Aliens (CUBA) Act.
The bill, introduced in March, is meant to level the playing field for all immigrants arriving to the United States and avoid possible friction among migrant groups – many are not happy to see Cubans applying for U.S. residency after only one year, while the others are held in detention centers throughout Texas.
“The preferential immigration status and benefits we bestow on Cuban migrants, through the Cuban Adjustment Act, the Refugee Education Assistance Act and the wet foot/dry foot policy, are relics of a bygone era and a cold war that has long since passed,” Rep. Cuellar said in a statement.
Texas is not the only one seeing an increase of Cubans at its borders. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of Cubans who entered in the Miami sector during Fiscal Year 2015 more than doubled from the previous year from 4,700 to nearly 10,000.
The main difference between the two is that Florida remains a final destination for Cubans, whereas Texas cities such as Houston have a network of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, such as the one that operates in El Paso, which provides transitional assistance as the migrants prepare to join their relatives elsewhere in the country.
There are several ongoing initiatives to keep Cubans in Texas, such as that of the non-profit Casa Cuba, which aims to preserve the “culture, roots, customs and traditions” for Cubans in the Houston community.
This year’s annual festival was a tribute to famed Cuban writer Jose Marti and was held in a local park where a bust of the famed poet was erected in 1981.
Similarly, volunteers with the non-profit organization Cubanos en Libertad in Laredo help new arrivals make the transition to the United States providing housing assistance, rides and help with welfare benefits and work permits. Founder
Alejandro Ruiz, a Cuban-American from New Jersey, regularly posts videos of Cubans, van loads in some cases, who have arrived in Laredo on the group’s Facebook page.
One of those videos shows two Cuban immigrants, now volunteers at Cubanos en Libertad, in front of the organization’s headquarters - a non-descript office sits between a Payless Shoe Source and Church’s Chicken at the foot of International Bridge No. 1, adorned with an American, Mexican and Cuban flag in each the window.
Leodes y Yosvany (no last names) are seen mugging for the camera flashing peace signs and smiling while a border patrol agent looks on.
At one point Ruiz can be heard asking the young men to address a message of hope for fellow Cubans on the way.
Yosvany tells the camera, “Todo bien. Todo bien.”
“Once you are here all the bad things are behind you,” he says in Spanish. “You can forget about everything you went through. From now on it is a new life.”
Joanna Cattanach is a freelancer based in Dallas, Texas.
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