The 30-year-old Cuban roofer leaned over the railing and called his older sister in Miami.
Dennis Pupo Cruz told her he was stuck on the Mexican side of the bridge above the Rio Grande River. He was inches from the U.S. border, but Border Patrol agents had stopped him and the other Cubans with him from entering the United States.
“We’re two hours late,” said Pupo, his eyes beginning to water.
He was one of 15 Cubans stranded in the middle of the bridge that links Nuevo Laredo with Laredo, Texas, on Thursday night after President Barack Obama suddenly ended the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that for more than 20 years had allowed Cubans who reached the United States to remain there.
They’d arrived at the U.S. border, often after spending thousands of dollars, with plans to travel to Miami, Houston or Las Vegas, where they would meet family and start new lives. Now everything was in doubt.
“My uncle. My aunts,” said Carlos Alberto Gonzalez Ricabal, a 26-year-old bartender from Las Tunas, Cuba, who’d arrived at the border at 6 p.m. “They told me to hurry up and come. Two hours. Two hours.”
Hundreds of Cubans had been rushing to make it to the United States before the inauguration next Friday of President-elect Donald Trump, expecting that he might change U.S. policy toward Cuba and eliminate the special benefits Cubans have long received in the United States. None imagined that Obama, who visited Havana less than a year ago, would make the change just a week before he leaves office.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of others are no doubt just learning about the change while farther back in their journeys to the U.S., stuck now in Mexico or other parts of Central and South America.
Many wondered how their perilous journey over mountains and through jungles could end this way.
We’re two hours late. Dennis Pupo Cruz
Cesar Buza Gonzalez, 22, questioned how Obama could make the change so suddenly, without getting the approval of Congress. Leanys Morales, 47, hoping against hope, wondered whether the border agents at Laredo just didn’t know know that the deadline was still hours away.
There must be a mistake, she said. Surely, so momentous a change wouldn’t have happened so abruptly with no notice. “We don’t understand,” said Renee Sanchez. “We don’t understand.”
But Obama in fact had ended the policy immediately. U.S. officials in Washington said the abruptness was necessary to prevent setting off a stampede to the United States by people trying to beat the deadline.
Pupo’s sister in Miami, Midalmis Martinez, wondered why the U.S. couldn’t just take in those who were on the bridge. They were practically inside, she said in a phone interview.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said.
The U.S. agents gave each of the Cubans they turned away a list of resources in Mexico, including a hospital, the Red Cross and a shelter where they could seek help. They gave each an appointment to return Saturday if they wanted to apply for asylum.
My uncle. My aunts. They told me to hurry up and come. Carlos Alberto Gonzalez Ricabal
But seeking asylum is not easy. They must prove they have a credible fear of persecution if they return to Cuba. Then they must wait for a hearing before a judge. To receive asylum in the United States, applicants must prove they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on five categories: “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”
“I would guess that most of these Cubans would not be able to show such fears,” said professor William LeoGrande, a specialist in Cuban politics and U.S. foreign policy at American University in Washington. Wanting a better life is not one of the grounds for asylum.
Many of the young men and women had sold their homes and all their possessions to raise the money to make the trip. Now, with the door slammed shut, they let go of their dream reluctantly.
“We’re going to wait here,” Raul Alejandro Gonzalez, 28, said as he stood on the bridge. “We’re going to sleep here. We’ll wait until tomorrow. We’ll wait until next week. We’ll wait until they let us in.”
Pupo could only nod his head. He’d thought he was going to be in Miami by the weekend to meet his sister. She’d said friends would help him find construction work.
On the phone, he told her that some of the other Cubans were going to stay and see whether they eventually would be let in. She told him to be strong. He wiped his eyes.
“I’ll wait for you here,” she said.