By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
To Rey's surprise, the guard offered up the correct change. Rey strolled across the bridge and came to a line of people curling out of the U.S. customs office. He started talking to others, telling his story.
The Mexicans were surprised that a Cuban would wait in such a long line. They told him that he could simply walk up to a window inside the office, declare his nationality and claim political asylum. Rey did, and hours later, he walked into Texas.
In December, after months of floundering at the border, including a botched trip to New Orleans to find work, Rey moved to Houston. He lives with another Cuban, Silvino, he met while living near the border. The men, along with another Cuban Silvino met in a Mexican prison, live in a one-bedroom apartment in southwest Houston.
Rey is optimistic about his job prospects now that he's out of the Valley and into the big city, but he misses his wife and two children, who are Mexican citizens and still living in Mexico. He's thought about trying to persuade his family to sneak across the border, but says he's going to wait until he has the money to bring them here legally.
Stories like Rey's have some anti-immigration groups fuming. The Federation for American Immigration Reform supports ending all preferential treatment of Cubans. Ira Mehlman, a representative of the group, says the U.S. Cuban policy encourages all kinds of illegal immigrants — including potential terrorists — to seek asylum.
"It's a vestige of a Cold War-era policy that didn't make sense even during the Cold War. Castro has always been happy to export his political dissidents here to yell and scream," Mehlman says. "Cubans should be treated exactly like everyone else. No better and no worse."
Even some Cuban-Americans are questioning the legitimacy of asylum claims by "dusty foot" Cubans. Grisel Ybarra, an immigration attorney in Miami who fled Cuba in 1962, thinks the Cuban Adjustment Act shouldn't apply in Texas. She thinks that the vast majority of Cubans are seeking better-paying jobs, not political freedom.
"These Cubans come here, tell some bullshit story at the border and they get their green card," Ybarra says. "I came here seeking freedom, not hot dogs. My generation, we are refugees; they are immigrants. If you came to Miami and asked Cubans who came here before Mariel, 99 percent of them would agree with me."
Evidence of human smuggling from Cuba to Mexico is starting to pop up on the Yucatán Peninsula. In fact, Ybarra believes that the majority of Cubans are smuggled from the island in expensive speedboats rather than the type of ramshackle vessel that Harry crossed in.
"Cubans are the richest Hispanic group in the U.S.," Ybarra says. "We live in $1 million homes in Coral Gables. We have the money to pay for boats to get people out of Cuba."
According to Warr, smugglers charge $8,000 to $10,000 per person. The boats are often stolen from marinas along the Florida coast, Warr says, then used to transport 30 to 40 Cubans in a single trip.
In the Florida Straits, the Coast Guard has become more aggressive toward suspected smugglers. Officers are now instructed to shoot at boats that do not respond to warning shots. Gunfire has a 100 percent success rate, Warr says, and it's no surprise that smugglers have changed directions.
"We know it's happening, that there is a lot of maritime smuggling between Cuba and Mexico," Warr says. "We have a vested interest because, indirectly, that is illegal smuggling into the U.S."
The Coast Guard tries to patrol all international waters surrounding the Cuban, Mexican and U.S. coasts. If Cuban smuggling continues to affect the number of Cubans crossing the Texas border, Warr says that Coast Guard ships could patrol as far south as the Yucatán Channel.
"The Caribbean Sea is two million square miles and we try to patrol every bit of it," he says. "We realize we can't catch them all."
Officials from the Mexican state of Quintana Roo say that Cuban-Americans now have human smuggling rings based on the Yucatán Peninsula. Articles in Granma, the official newspaper in Cuba, which is widely perceived as a mouthpiece for the Cuban regime, have reported that Cubans are dressed up as tourists after arriving on the coast, and then hustled off to an airport in Cancún or Mérida.
Articles in the Mexican press have also speculated that competition for the lucrative trade of Cuban immigrants is responsible for a rash of gruesome homicides on the Yucatán. Quintana Roo Attorney General Bello Melchor Rodriguez contends that the violence is part of an ongoing battle over Cuban smuggling between Mexican drug cartels and a Cuban-American mafia.
The bloodshed started in July, when a Cuban-American man was killed in a shoot-out outside the National Immigration Institute in Mérida, the largest city in the Yucatán. Then, another Cuban, Luis Lázaro Lara Morejón, was found executed near Cancún, his body dumped on a remote and narrow strip of road.
Days after the Morejón murder, Mexican police followed red arrows painted on a Cancún highway and discovered three dead Mexicans, bound, gagged and blindfolded, partially buried in a sinkhole.