By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Enveloped by darkness, a tractor rumbles down the hills that surround Cuba's western coast. The tractor pulls a cart loaded with a makeshift boat constructed from aluminum tubing and an old car motor.
Fourteen Cubans cram into the craft, destined for a twisting river that leads to the Yucatán Channel. To Harry Reinier, who had waited with the others in a safe house for weeks, the boat feels like a kitchen sink. Tonight, they make their escape from Cuba.
A motorcycle races ahead of the tractor, its driver armed with a two-way radio to sound alarm if the river launch is guarded. The shoreline is clear, and two men shove the boat away from the riverbank. The engine — a leftover from a 1950s-era American car — howls to a start and the boat shudders from the shallows to deeper water.
Harry doesn't know what to expect on the open sea. He has never set foot on a boat before this moment. Food and water are scarce, with a backpack full of canned food and two jugs of water for each member of the group. He only knows that their goal is the east coast of Mexico — a trip he is told will take four days. Harry has little money, few resources and no guarantee the boat will ever reach Mexico.
But the risk is well worth a chance at the reward — legal residency in the United States. In Havana, Harry heard that any Cuban who makes it to the Texas border is processed into the country without much hassle.
The boat sputters toward Mexico for two days before the motor dies. For more than a week, the boat drifts on the open sea. Food and water supplies soon run out. The group survives on raw fish and rainwater.
After suffering dehydration, sunburn and exhaustion, after battling sleep-deprived, crazed Cubans on his boat, after five months in a Mexican prison and after marathon bus rides to Mexico City and Matamoros, Harry crosses the Texas border. Today, he lives about 30 miles north of Brownsville. He is a legal resident of the United States, drawing a little less than $500 a month of government money.
Harry is part of a growing number of Cubans abandoning the traditional Cuban escape route — the Florida Straits — and entering the United States through Texas. When the U.S. Coast Guard started deporting Cubans caught in the waters off the southern tip of Florida in the mid-1990s, Cubans simply changed directions. Now they're leaving from Cuba's poorly guarded southern and western coasts and crossing to the Yucatán Peninsula, often landing on Isla Mujeres, an island near Cancún.
Prior to 2005, Cubans that crossed the Texas border were held in a detention facility until their backgrounds were checked and their paperwork processed. But a policy change now allows Cubans to enter the United States the same day they arrive. They're registered as "political asylees."
The number of Cubans entering Texas has skyrocketed. About 11,500 crossed the border legally last year — almost all through Brownsville — which is three times the number that entered through Florida.
As a result, Houston's Cuban community is on the verge of a boom. The city is becoming a popular destination for border-crossing Cubans without friends or relatives waiting in Miami.
Some Cubans find the Texas border an unfriendly place. Some are placed at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, facing an immigration judge who has denied political asylum to every Cuban immigrant who has appeared before him in the last two years.
Cubans entering Texas are often flush with cash, but not all. Those like Harry find themselves broke and alone, unprepared for life in the Valley. Still, despite his few prospects, Harry knows that unlike other illegal immigrants, he won't be deported.
For at least one nationality, the Texas-Mexico border is an open door.
Cubans were first given a path to residency in the United States in 1966, when the government passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, a product of Cold War politics intended to allow Cubans a refuge in this country until the Castro regime was overthrown.
The majority of Cubans moved to Miami or New Jersey during the early years, but about 12,000 settled in Houston. They were mainly from affluent families that had been vacationing in South Texas for years. Because of Houston's location and warm weather, along with its universities and medical centers, the city became a magnet for middle- and upper-class Cubans.
"Back then, everybody knew each other," says Orlando Sanchez, a Houston businessman and politician who was born in Cuba. "We thought we'd all eventually go back home."
These days, Sanchez considers himself a Texan, not a Cuban. He says that his two daughters have few connections to the island and little desire to go there.
The demographic portrait of Cubans in Texas has changed dramatically since Sanchez arrived. In the spring of 1980, Castro opened the port of Mariel, located west of Havana, and allowed foreign boats to take Cubans from the island. Castro emptied the country's jails and mental hospitals to rid the island of "undesirables" and "counterrevolutionaries" — gays, the insane, drug addicts and criminals.