Alberto Rafael Ramírez, 29, a onetime bus driver, put a cigarette in his mouth and passed two others to friends as they paced violently, arguing with themselves over whether they should turn themselves into U.S. immigration agents and risk months of detention for the chance of winning asylum in the United States..
Ramírez said they’d be treated worse if they tried to return to Cuba now. Yoanny Iglesia Jimenez, 34, a bartender from Guantánamo, said he was confident U.S. authorities would treat them well. Yoe Luis Santana, 37, of Havana, said he was ready. Jose Angel Castañeda, of Havana, said only God would determine their fate, but after selling everything he had in Cuba, traveling through 12 countries, facing guns pointed at his head, he had no choice but to fight to fulfill his dream.
On Saturday, on the windy bridge that links Mexico to Texas, they made their decision. They were ready to turn themselves in.
“We traveled too far and for too long without knowing whether we would live or die,” Castañeda said.
He then turned to the others, including the only woman in the group, Yanitsy Correoso Rivero, of Guantánamo, and said: “There are five of us who are going to cross. Let’s walk.”
It was a decision that likely presages a huge backlog in U.S. immigration courts if other Cubans who’ve left their homeland in hopes of reaching the United States do the same. Thousands of Cubans are thought to have been in mid journey when President Barack Obama on Thursday ended the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy that had given Cubans automatic immigration parole just for touching American soil.
For the five, the moment went beyond challenging an immigration system that was likely to defeat them. It was a deeply personal choice after months of travel that ended with a shock when they found out that a U.S. policy that for two decades had welcomed Cubans had been abruptly canceled.
“The Cuban government,” Ramírez said. “You’re either with them. Or, you’re the enemy.”
U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials said Saturday that the five Cubans would now be treated like any other migrants who present themselves at the border.
“The Department of Homeland Security will no longer give special preference to parole requests made by Cuban nationals who reach the United States, and they may be subject to expedited removal,” said Gillian Christensen, a department spokeswoman. “Like nationals from other countries, Cubans in the United States can seek asylum and other available forms of relief or protection from removal.
To receive asylum, applicants must prove they have well-founded fears of persecution because of “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”
Lawyers say the men face months in detention, but will have an opportunity to prove they have a credible fear of persecution if they return to the island. Bryan Johnson, an immigration attorney who has argued many asylum cases, said Cuba remains a communist country. He reviewed some of the Cuban laws and said the penalties for speaking out against the government were so harsh that they would make Russian President Vladimir “Putin look like an angel.”
“I think they have a really good chance of winning asylum if they’ve been harmed or threatened,” said Johnson, who worried that adjudicating thousands of similar Cuban asylum claims will stress an already backed-up immigration court system.
Minutes earlier dozens more Cubans were on the bridge, talking about organizing a demonstration to protest the change in policy. But most had abandoned the plan when officials warned that such a move could result in jail time.
The five who chose to seek asylum said they feared returning to Cuba. Jimenez said his family has been persecuted by Cuban officials. Castañeda they were already compromised by leaving their homeland and speaking to a reporter.
According to statistics from Customs and Border Protection, 34,600 Cubans entered Texas in fiscal year 2016 through Laredo, the most popular entry point for Cubans coming to the U.S. That was an almost 35 percent jump from 2015, when 26,000 entered.
Correoso, Jimenez’s partner, expressed the hope, voiced by others, that President-elect Donald Trump would do something to help them and others who’d already begun their journey and didn’t feel safe returning home.
A border agent with salt-and-pepper hair and a blue uniform stopped the five about 10 yards from the Laredo station house.
“You want to come in?” he asked, speaking perfect Spanish. He asked the Cubans how many they were. He asked if they were ready.
Ramirez, Jimenez, Castañeda, Santana, and Correoso all said yes or nodded their heads.
“Please step over to the side in this other line,” the agent directed them from one line of people waiting to cross to a separate line along the fence.
The five anxiously obeyed. Their emotions were high. Tears began to flow.
“Don’t forget about us,” Castañeda said to a reporter who’d followed them across the bridge to the station.
Word spread quickly among the agents in the station that five Cuban migrants had gotten in line to claim asylum.
“They’re going to be detained,” said a younger agent with a hint of surprise. The agent with salt-and-pepper hair nodded.
“Five Cubans coming through,” another agent called out a final time.