By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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The case was considered a watershed moment, with some Florida politicians calling for complete reform of the government's Cuban policy. One Florida protestor led a hunger strike. Eventually a federal judge ordered immigration officials to attempt to bring the Cubans back. By December 2006, 14 of the 15 were living in the United States.
"Our agents...they're just trying to enforce current U.S. policy," Warr says. "But we understand, the migrants at sea, they're just trying to leave a country they don't want to be in. For what it is, it's illegal migration. We're just trying to control the border."
Since 2005, about 8,500 Cubans have been caught off the coast of Florida and deported back to Cuba. With the Coast Guard clamping down on routes in the Florida Straits and Miami filling up with out-of-work Cubans, it was only a matter of time before balseros and smugglers shifted directions.
"I am not happy with the policy," says Jorge Ferragut, a Cuban who settled in Houston in 1980 and later started Casa Cuba, an organization aimed at helping Cubans who arrive in Texas. "The people that try to leave, they are putting their lives in danger. Yes, it's violating the law, but also the U.S. has known from the beginning the political situation in Cuba."
As a young man, Ferragut wanted to stay in Cuba. But he says that when he realized what little freedom he had, he decided to leave. Ferragut thinks that most Cubans have a similar realization, and says that the latest surge in Cubans leaving could be attributed to an ailing Fidel handing over power to his younger brother Raul last year.
"It's the same tyranny," Ferragut says. "Raul has all the same power; he has been part of the same crime. If something changes, it is only cosmetic."
Ferragut adds that many of the Cubans arriving in the United States today do not leave because of Castro or Communism. Their decision is based on economic, rather than political, motives.
Before Harry Reinier left Cuba this spring, he worked in a bakery kneading dough for ten hours a day and $12 a week. His mother had fled Cuba years earlier for Peru. She sent him money when she could so that he might be able to leave as well.
When a friend told Harry about a planned escape to Mexico, Harry emptied his savings and paid $500 to secure a seat on the boat. It was blind faith; he never met the men in charge of the trip.
"Everyone wants to leave Cuba," Harry says. "When there is money, and there is a chance, that's when they leave."
In Cuba, Rey had been a professional photographer, living in a provincial town in eastern Cuba. He suddenly felt the urge to enter the priesthood, but couldn't find much support for seminarians in Castro's Cuba. He was able to secure a visa to Mexico to further his studies. Then Rey fell in love with a Mexican girl during a religious retreat and got her pregnant. Rey abandoned the seminary, and the couple decided to marry and start a family in Morelia, a colonial city in central Mexico.
When Rey applied for Mexican residency at an immigration office, authorities told him he had 72 hours to leave the country or risk deportation. Instead of leaving, Rey purchased false documents that identified him as a Mexican citizen. He destroyed all of his personal belongings that identified or even mentioned his Cuban nationality.
Rey also worked to change his accent, his mannerisms and his word choice. It wasn't easy, because switching between Cuban and Mexican Spanish is like changing a Texas twang to an Irish brogue.
His scheme worked for a while. Rey married his girlfriend, their child was born and he found part-time work at a Ford dealership. With his brown skin and straight black hair, Rey passed as a Mexican for three years.
Finally, Mexican immigration officials caught and detained him. They let him go after issuing a document stating his name and nationality.
"It was just a plain piece of paper with a stamp, but it was the only identification I had left," Rey says. "The paper said that I had 30 days of parole in Mexico before I would be ordered out of the country."
Rey decided to bolt for the Texas border, where he heard that he could pass into the United States legally. After a full day on a bus from Morelia to Matamoros, Rey found the border crossing. Fearing he would be caught and sent back to Cuba, his hands trembled as he approached the gate to the international bridge.
Rey fumbled in his pockets for change at the turnstile. He only had a ten-peso piece, the wrong coin. He tried to stuff the peso into the slot but it wouldn't fit. A Mexican guard approached, armed with an automatic rifle.
"Mexico is so corrupt," Rey says. "You're constantly having to pay bribes to get anything done. I thought I would have to pay another bribe to get across."