After getting parole, Harry walked to a small park across the street from the customs office in Brownsville. Shade trees provide cover for concrete benches, and recently arrived immigrants often rest in the park or wait for companions. Harry began asking strangers for advice.

He eventually found his way to a Catholic church in the heart of Brownsville. The church contacted Sister Margaret Mertens, a former Catholic-school teacher from Missouri who now runs a small shelter for refugees about 30 miles north of the border.

After a few weeks at the shelter, Harry feels stuck. When he stepped aboard the homemade boat and set out for Mexico, he knew it would be the last time that he would ever see Cuba. His sister is still there, along with his wife and child. He misses the place.

Damian Jimenez left Cuba on a homemade raft in 1994. He now works at Catholic Charities in Houston, helping newly arrived Cubans settle in the city.
Daniel Kramer
Damian Jimenez left Cuba on a homemade raft in 1994. He now works at Catholic Charities in Houston, helping newly arrived Cubans settle in the city.
Rey Rodriguez (right) moved to Houston from the Texas border at the urging of his friend Silvino (left). The men live with another Cuban in a one-bedroom apartment in southwest Houston.
Daniel Kramer
Rey Rodriguez (right) moved to Houston from the Texas border at the urging of his friend Silvino (left). The men live with another Cuban in a one-bedroom apartment in southwest Houston.

Harry rarely leaves the shelter grounds, which are surrounded by acres of dirt and sugarcane fields, miles from any of the businesses in San Benito or Harlingen that might provide work. He sometimes gets a ride into town from Sister Margaret to go to the bank and cash his government assistance checks (see "Immigration: The Boss Nun").

Most days, Harry's either studying English or completing a chore or cooking dinner for other refugees. He's applied for several jobs in surrounding towns, but thinks that whites and Mexican-­Americans are suspicious of a black man with a funny Spanish accent.

He's waiting on his immigration hearing to get his official green card. He says he's confused about what's going on most of the time.

"You could put a paper in front of me that says, 'This black guy will be your slave,' and I would sign it," Harry says, "because I have no idea what I'm ­signing."

On a warm fall evening, Harry paces across the concrete floors of a building at the shelter. The wire meshing tacked in the window frames does little to keep out the insects. Mosquitoes buzz around the fluo­rescent lights overhead. A lawnmower and rusty bicycle stand against a wall, and a stack of discarded suitcases leans in one corner.

Another Cuban at the shelter pulls pieces of ham from a refrigerator and talks as he pours a glass of juice.

"While we're here, we can't do anything," the man says. "We're looking for a job to pay bills, to pay rent. It's just like being in Cuba."

But Harry has some hope. He figures that he can venture out on his own as soon as he learns enough English. He doesn't know much about the Texas away from the border, and wants to leave the state so he can find work. He's heard of a place called Kentucky, where he dreams of settling down.

"I have no idea what it's like there," he says, "but it sounds calm and peaceful, with plenty of jobs for Cubans. I think that it's a place where I could raise a family."

For now, Harry remains in the Valley. The living conditions at the shelter aren't great, Harry admits, but at least he has a bed to sleep in and food to eat. He's too tired and weary to start a new journey.

The important thing is that he's here, dry foot, in Texas.

paul.knight@houstonpress.com

russell.cobb@houstonpress.com

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