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"The policy on that kind of shifts from day to day," says Jodie Goodwin, an attorney in Harlingen. Goodwin has practiced immigration law along the Texas border for more than a decade and has seen the Cuban boom firsthand. She has represented a number of Cubans detained at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos.
"They're not stupid," she says. "They know they're probably not going to die crossing the bridge in Texas, where who knows floating the 90 miles to Miami."
One of the Cubans that Goodwin currently represents was detained because he entered the country by swimming the river. When the man made it across, he flagged down a Border Patrol truck and turned himself in.
"I can't figure out why a Cuban would swim the river...but I've actually seen a number of these cases," Goodwin says. "He knew about the policy, he just didn't know about the bridge."
While in detention, Cubans must wait to go before an immigration judge and defend their claims of political asylum. At the Port Isabel center, where Brownsville detainees are taken, that means facing Judge Howard E. Achtsam.
"If you're unfortunate enough to get Judge Achtsam, that means you're probably going to get denied," Goodwin says. "I think he has got to be the only immigration judge in the country that routinely denies asylum for Cubans."
Achtsam, who has served as an immigration judge since 1986, could not be reached for comment. A representative with the U.S. Department of Justice says federal immigration judges do not answer questions from the press. But statistics reveal that in the last two years, every Cuban that has passed through Port Isabel has been denied asylum.
Goodwin's client who swam the river has been detained for four months. The man is still waiting for his asylum hearing. But Achtsam already turned down the man's request for bond. In recent months, the docket at Port Isabel has been so packed that an immigration judge in Washington, D.C., has started hearing cases via video conference. Goodwin is optimistic that her client will not have to face Achtsam again.
"He's going to get another judge, and probably going to get his asylum," she says.
But even if a Cuban is denied political asylum, it means little more than an extended stay at the detention facility. Goodwin says that if the asylum is denied again during appeal, policy requires a final review within 90 days. That review usually results in release from detention, only without asylee status.
At that point, however, the Cuban will usually have been in the country for one year, the period of time necessary to qualify for a green card.
"They can't send them back to Cuba. It basically means a lot of wasting of government resources and a lot of wasting of private resources," Goodwin says. "It's all a game. The ultimate end for all Cubans is just to get here and stay."
On a sunny morning in November, a group of Cuban women huddled in the corner of a waiting room at the customs office in Brownsville. Two of the women had dyed their hair a bronzy-blond. Another wore a pair of bright pink Nike Shocks.
Outside, a line of immigrants from other countries waiting to cross the border stretched out of the building and onto the international bridge.
The women, along with two Cuban men, had arrived at the border at midnight and were waiting for a turn in the processing room to be interviewed by an officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Cubans are asked a series of questions to determine whether they should be allowed to enter. The interviews take several hours, and unless they are detained, Cubans are given their one-year parole papers the same day they arrive.
While the women wait, customs officers interrogate two Cuban men who arrived with the women. Unlike Rey and Harry, it's clear that their trip has been immaculately planned and well financed.
Garza, the customs agent, looks at one of the group suspiciously. He asks the skinny, mustachioed young man named Rolando to empty his pockets. Rolando takes out a leather wallet bulging with $20 bills and a small address book.
While another agent continues the questioning, Garza flips through the notebook, which is filled with phone numbers and details for his trip through Mexico. Garza's eyes widen when he comes to a familiar name.
"Fidelito!" he exclaims. "Do you know Fidelito?" Garza is referring to Fidelito Castro, Fidel's oldest son and ex-head of Cuba's nuclear energy program.
Rolando looks horrified. No, he says, it's not Fidelito Castro; he's only a friend from school.
Garza asks him if Fidel Castro is dead. Rolando shakes his head to answer no.
"When was the last time you saw him alive?"
"About a month ago," Rolando says.
Harry crossed the Texas border with relative ease. But unlike many of the Cubans that arrive loaded with cash, Harry was broke.
To pay for his bus fares and traveling expenses, he had taken loans from the relative of a Cuban he met in the Mexican prison. Harry had promised to pay back the money once he arrived in the U.S. At the moment, though, that was the least of his concerns.
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