Immigration: Luck of the Draw

Juan Martinez strolls through the parking lot at the Carlingford Apartments, a sprawling complex in southwest Houston, carrying a plastic sack filled with Miller High Life cans.

Martinez, a recent Houston transplant, is returning from his job at a nearby carpet and flooring company where he makes $6.65 an hour. He's happy to be in Houston, but he's a little irritated at the large number of illegal immigrants — Nicaraguans, Salvadorans and Mexicans — in the area. He thinks they are driving down his wages.

"It makes it difficult for us," Martinez says, "because we are here legally."


Cuban immigrants

And unlike many of the Cubans who enter the country by crossing the Texas border, Martinez actually left Cuba legally. He was granted a U.S. visa through a system that Cubans refer to as "el bombo," or the lottery, which has provided tens of thousands of visas to randomly selected Cubans since 1994.

Martinez opted for Houston over Miami because job prospects seemed better and the cost of living was lower. According to workers at local resettlement agencies, Martinez isn't alone. Houston is increasingly becoming a popular destination for those Cubans lucky enough to win the lottery.

Cubans who receive a visa are flown to Miami courtesy of the U.S. State Department. At the airport, they are connected with different refugee resettlement organizations, including Catholic Charities and Interfaith Ministries.

Both agencies provide rent assistance, help with Medicaid and Social Security processing, job training, legal counseling, medical examinations and a transportation service.

In Houston, the agencies also help Cubans find an apartment, usually at one of several complexes on South Gessner Road, including the Carlingford and Boca Springs. The apartments are often meagerly furnished with items donated or left over from previous residents.

At Boca Springs, the Bilingual Education Institute teaches English classes three nights a week in an unoccupied apartment outfitted with a chalkboard and plastic folding chairs placed around wooden tables.

"Our main goal is employment," says Agustín Socorro, the Cuban program coordinator at Interfaith Ministries. "Our Cuban population is easier to settle...with our ­Spanish-speaking population, it's easier to find employment. All the Cubans I have are working."

Socorro himself won the lottery in Cuba and acquired a U.S. visa in 1995. He was not able to leave the country, however, until eight years later, when he could afford to pay processing fees to the Cuban government.

Marcos Fernandez, director of the Cuban resettlement program at the Houston office of Catholic Charities, says that his agency provides service to about 200 Cuban families a year.

Most Cubans are able to find work in Houston, Fernandez says, through a friend or a relative. If they seek vocational help through Catholic Charities, most Cuban men are trained and hired as truck drivers, with women being placed as nursing assistants.

Cubans can also leave the island by being sent on "missions" to countries where Cuba maintains diplomatic relations. The Cubans are under obligation to return to the country when their mission is over, but they often escape to the United States.

Cuban doctors are a prime example. The Cuban government sends a large number of its doctors to Venezuela on one-year missions, in an attempt to strengthen ties with Hugo Chavez's fledgling socialist revolution. According to Socorro, Cuban doctors are currently arriving in Miami at a rate of three per day.

One of them is Alexy Sebasco, a Cuban doctor who chose Houston for his ­resettlement.

"We were supposed to be ambassadors for the Revolution," says Sebasco, a handsome 33-year-old who arrived in Houston in May. "I went to the rallies and chanted 'Viva Fidel.' I was hoping that someone powerful would see my face and give me a visa to leave."

Cuban authorities sent Sebasco to a poor neighborhood in Venezuela, where he immediately started looking for a way out. He found an underground network of Venezuelans who help Cubans leave the country. It was a risky venture, he says, because Venezuelan police officers are paid $1,000 for each Cuban doctor they capture trying to escape.

When Sebasco arrived in Miami, caseworkers showed him a map of the United States and told him that if he wanted to leave Miami, he could choose Kentucky, Las Vegas or Houston.

"When I said I was a doctor, they suggested I go to Houston," Sebasco says.

Now, Sebasco says it's all he can do to fight off the boredom of part-time work in a hotel and life in a nondescript apartment complex on South Gessner, which is provided by Interfaith Ministries. He's applied for jobs at local hospitals, but Sebasco knows that he won't get hired until he learns English.

"I want to get back to a hospital. I'll clean the floors to start out. I don't care. I just want to get back to my work as a ­doctor."

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