Cubans debate whether a year in detention is worth a chance at the American dream

Ernesto Vazquez is giving himself 24-hours to decide whether the small chance of a life in the United States is worth being locked up for a year without knowing if he’ll get to stay or be deported back to Cuba.

The 27-year old executive chef from Havana was wrestling with the question over a lunch in this dusty Mexican border town Friday with a handful of Cuban friends he’d met over his two-month journey from Havana to South America, through Central America and to the Mexican border with the United States.

They blasted President Barack Obama for changing the U.S. immigration practice without warning. They cursed their luck. And they wondered whether President-elect Donald Trump would reverse Obama’s decision to end the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that for more than 20 years had allowed Cubans to remain in the United States simply by touching American soil.

“I’m going to decide today,” Vazquez said. “I’m going to talk more with my family. See if they can get advice from a lawyer over there. I don’t have many options.”

Thousands of Cubans are in various points of their journey to the United States and now face a second life-altering decision – after first deciding to leave their lives in Cuba behind. Should they abandon their hopes of getting into the U.S. or take their chances with the U.S. refugee system by entering the country and agreeing to detention until their applications for asylum has been adjudicated.

Lawyers say the risks are high. Some of the Cubans will likely be able to show they have a credible fear of persecution if they return to the island. But many will not.

Jorge Rivera, an immigration attorney in Miami who has consulted with some Cuban families whose loved ones are making the journey said Cubans will now have to apply for asylum just like anyone else seeking to enter the country without proper documentation. Return to Cuba is a real risk for the first time in 1994.

“They’re not going to have special treatment anymore,” he said, a statement echoed by the Department of Homeland Security which warned in a statement that Cubans might now be subjected to “expedited removal.”

One of Rivera’s clients is the family of Jennifer Lopez, 25, who, according to her family, has been taken into U.S. custody after expressing an interest in asylum. Her older sister, Gardenia Lopez, 42, said Jennifer arrived at the border on Wednesday hours before the policy change, but her paperwork had not been fully processed when the announcement was made.

“She was already in the U.S.,” Gardenia Lopez said. “This is a country of laws. We just want them followed.”

Tens of thousands of Cubans have used Nuevo Laredo and its American twin, Laredo, as their entry point to the United States in the past year, and their numbers had been growing every week, making the Texas border the most popular crossing point for Cubans entering the United States.

According to statistics from Customs and Border Protection, 34,600 Cubans entered Texas in fiscal year 2016 through the Laredo sector, which stretches from Del Rio to Brownsville. That was an almost 35 percent jump from 2015, when 26,000 entered.

Through the first two months of the government’s current fiscal year, an additional 6,500 Cubans have been processed through the Laredo sector.

Dignora Ortega Rosa, 27, and her fiancee, Yosmel Gonzalez Rivero, 33, were two of the lucky ones, arriving hours before the border was shut on Thursday. Their celebration underscored how much the two had at stake in successfully navigating the journey. Gonzalez, who made it through immigration first, lifted Ortega from the ground in a hug of jubilation when she finally exited the border station. Ortega pulled out an American flag bandana and waved it.

“I bought this a year ago in Cuba,” she said, proudly. “I never wore it – until now.”

A few hours later, the mood had shifted as Cubans who arrived after the end of “wet foot, dry foot” was announced, wondered what will become of them now. They huddled for hours on the international bridge that connects Mexico with the United States before drifting off to figure out what comes next.

Yoyanner Fernandez, 34, and his friend, Elaines Matos, 32, decided to get rooms at a Nuevo Laredo hotel near the border after hearing rumors that Trump may provide Cubans already en route to the United States some form of relief.

“It’s given me hope,” Fernandez said of the rumor, the origin of which was unclear. “I’m going to wait. I want to wait and see what he does.”

At lunch, Vazquez and his friends swapped legal advice and tips they’d received from friends and family.

Onaissis Villiegas, 24, played for the group an audio clip of an interview with a lawyer explaining the pros and cons of an asylum claim. Cesar Buza Gonzalez, 22, wanted to speak more with his family in Miami to see what they thought. Carlos Alberto Gonzalez Ricabal, 26, thought convincing U.S. authorities to allow them to stay would be very difficult.

But Vazquez said he hadn’t spent $7,000 and two months of his life to give up now.

“I can’t just turn around and go back,” he said. “In Cuba, I don’t really have anything anymore.”