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.

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.
Cubans are processed daily at the customs office in Brownsville, with many entering the United States the same day they arrive.
Paul Knight
Cubans are processed daily at the customs office in Brownsville, with many entering the United States the same day they arrive.
Fingerprinting is one of the last steps before a Cuban is released into the United States.
Russell Cobb
Fingerprinting is one of the last steps before a Cuban is released into the United States.

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.

The exodus ended in September 1980, after a U.S. Coast Guard and Naval blockade stopped the inflow of boats. But during the six months that the Mariel port was open, about 125,000 Cubans arrived in Miami.

Tensions between the United States and Cuba heightened during the 1980s, and the tide of refugees slowed to a trickle until the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Soviets had provided generous subsidies for Cuban exports from the early 1960s until the late 1980s. Within a couple years of the Soviet Union's collapse, almost all of its aid to Cuba disappeared. In 1991 alone, the Cuban economy shrank by 24 per cent.

As economic pressure built within the country, so did discontent among the people. When desperate Cubans began rioting in the streets, Castro blamed their dissent on a U.S. policy that encouraged Cubans to leave.

Castro announced in a televised speech that "either the U.S. take serious measures to guard their coasts, or we will stop putting obstacles in the way of people who want to leave the country, and we will stop putting obstacles in the way of people in the U.S. who want to come and look for their relatives here."

Damian Jimenez, born and raised in Cuba, was sitting at his mother's house in Havana when the phone rang. His friend was on the other end. He was ecstatic.

"He told me that everyone was leaving, that Castro was letting everyone leave," Jimenez says. "He told me to turn on the ­television."

Sure enough, Castro had pulled his guards away from the coast, reversing a long-standing Cuban law that punished attempted escape with arrest. During the month following Castro's announcement, an estimated 35,000 Cubans, now known as "balseros," left the island and floated to Florida.

Jimenez and seven friends were among them. They paid about $375 for a raft. After rowing for three days, the group was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and, like many of the balseros, taken to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

Jimenez was eventually released and shuttled to Miami where a caseworker with Catholic Charities, a resettlement agency, found him a job on a Michigan farm. Ten years later, Jimenez moved to Houston to work for Catholic Charities and help newly arrived Cubans (see "Immigration: Luck of the Draw").

In response to the balsero crisis, the U.S. government created a special immigration program for Cuba. Twenty thousand Cubans a year would get visas, which are distributed through a process that Cubans call "the lottery," to live and work in the United States. As a tradeoff, Castro promised to take steps to stop the wave of rafters disembarking from Cuba's shores.

The agreement also led to the creation of a "wet foot/dry foot" policy. Cubans caught in the water are now taxied back to the island on Coast Guard ships. But, if Cubans can make it to U.S. soil, they can stay and seek legal ­residency.

"Dry foot" Cubans technically enter the country on a one-year parole. At the end of that time, they are required to appear before an immigration judge to have their status upgraded to permanent residency. The new phenomenon of Cubans crossing Mexico by land has given rise to a new term: "dusty foot."

The policy has been widely criticized as hypocritical since its inception. Bizarre and dangerous incidents along the Florida coast — including Cubans threatening to kill themselves or their children to hold the Coast Guard at bay — have drawn attention to the problem.

"We've had cases where...they've poured gasoline on themselves and threatened to light themselves on fire," says Chief Dana Warr, an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami. "People will stab themselves or cut their wrists to be evacuated by helicopter to a U.S. hospital, and as soon as they touch down, they're 'dry foot.' It's almost like the wild, wild west out there, except on the water."
_____________________

In June 1999, Coast Guard officers attempted to stop six Cubans from reaching the Miami beach by blasting their boat with a high-power water cannon. When the men bailed into the sea to swim for shore, the officers trolled alongside, spraying pepper spray into their faces.

A crowd gathered on the beach to cheer on the swimmers, and two made it ashore, dashing through police and diving onto the sand. The entire incident was filmed by a news helicopter, and all six men were eventually allowed to enter the United States and awarded a seafood dinner with then-Miami mayor Joe Carollo.

In 2005, again with news cameras rolling, the Coast Guard tried to seize a homemade Cuban vessel by throwing rope into its propeller, and then using the powerful water cannon to turn back the boat. The Coast Guard tossed life jackets to the Cubans. The Cubans quickly tossed them back.

And in January 2006, 15 Cubans were found on a section of Old Seven Mile Bridge, an abandoned structure in the Florida Keys. The group was deported to Cuba after Coast Guard officials determined the bridge, which had partially collapsed, did not qualify as dry land.

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."
_____________________

Rey Rodriguez left Cuba on a calling from God. But when Mexican authorities busted him with false documents nearly four years later, Rey had only one option: head north for the Texas border.

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."

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.

"We believe these people were executed by those who are part of a Cuban-­American mafia," Rodriguez told the Associated Press in August. "They probably hired people to execute them."

The Cuban government has blamed both Mexico and the United States for allowing the trafficking to occur, and calls the killings part of a "bloody war" between Cuban-Americans and the Mexican drug cartel, the Zetas.

Critics claim the Mexican government is taking few measures to prevent Cubans from entering the country. Harry found little more than indifference and neglect in Mexico after his group's initial rescue. At first, he was happy to land in Mexico. After ten days at sea, Harry's boat was found by Mexican fisherman, hundreds of miles from the intended destination. The fisherman alerted the Mexican Navy, which provided the group with food, water and medical attention, then took them to shore.

Harry was detained at an immigration office in Mérida. Mexican officials told his group that if they could pay a "fine" of $1,000, or arrange for a friend or relative to wire the money, they would be set free.

Harry and several others in the group were unable to pay and were taken to a prison in Tapachula, nearly 850 miles south of Cancún. Harry was told he would have to serve three months before being allowed to leave.

Hundreds of Cubans and thousands of Central Americans were detained at the prison. They slept on concrete floors, surviving on a steady diet of watered-down milk, rice and beans.

Harry says that from time to time, a small group of Cubans would be rounded up for deportation. According to the National Institute of Immigration in Mexico, authorities have detained 876 Cubans this year and deported 271.

The Mexican government has adopted a policy similar to the U.S. wet foot/dry foot rule. Still, all Cubans — even those found at sea — are detained for processing in Mexico. Furthermore, some Cubans seized on land are transported to an airport in Cancún and deported back to Cuba. Others, such as Harry, are found at sea but eventually released.

Harry says there seemed to be no logic to who was selected for return to Cuba, and he constantly felt that he might be next for deportation. But five months passed and Harry remained in Tapachula. When workers from Grupo Beta, a Mexican humanitarian organization, visited the prison, Harry decided to file a complaint with the group because he was languishing in the jail months after his anticipated release.

Harry was then taken before an immigration judge at the prison. The judge said that if Harry withdrew his complaint, he would be allowed to leave. Days later, after a hearty dinner and a night in a $10 hotel, Harry was on a bus rumbling north through Mexico.
_____________________

Marisela Campuzano devoted her life to ballet in Cuba. But when the Cuban government sent her to Venezuela on a "mission" to teach budding young ballerinas, Marisela used the opportunity to escape for the United States.

Marisela and her husband bought fake passports and attempted to fly out of the country. But Venezuelan immigration officials busted them and confiscated the passports. Then Marisela tried paying a man who said he had a contact in the U.S. Embassy and could provide a visa for the right price. That plan failed as well.

After losing money a second time, the couple remained in Venezuela until they managed to obtain a legal visa to visit Mexico. After eight years, the couple, along with their young son, took a flight to Reynosa, Mexico, a border town across from McAllen, and entered the United States.

That was in 2000, when the trend of Cubans crossing the Texas border was about as unique as Mexicans floating to Miami. Customs officials were not versed in Cuban policy, Marisela says, and her family was told to return to Mexico

"We would rather go to jail than go back," Marisela says, "so we made up a story."

Marisela and her husband told customs officers that they had taken a boat from Cuba to Mexico, and that they had paid smugglers to transport them to the U.S. border. Marisela pleaded that she could not return to Mexico because she feared for her life.

Customs officials took Marisela and her husband to a detention facility where they waited for an immigration hearing. After ten days, they were released, and Marisela's aunt and uncle brought the family to Houston.

Prior to 2005, all Cubans were held at detention facilities for weeks at a time until they could be processed, according to Felix Garza, an agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But as spots at the detention facilities started to fill up, and the trickle of Cubans along the border turned into a tide, the Department of Homeland Security changed the policy to allow for almost immediate parole.

Still, some Cubans are detained.

"Once we begin the processing, we do have the authority to make an arrest," says Garza, who oversees border crossings from Del Rio to Brownsville. Garza says that a Cuban could be detained if he is determined to be sick or mentally ill or to have a criminal record.

"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.

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.

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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