White House

These were the last Cubans to enter the U.S. as wet foot, dry foot policy ended

The U.S. border patrol agent checked the 32-year-old Cuban electrical engineer’s and his 7-year-old son’s documents one last time. Then he welcomed them into the country.

But before Yuniesky Marcos Roque walked away, the agent told him he was the last Cuban who would be allowed through the border station.

“He told me that my son and I were the last Cubans to be let in,” said Marcos, pulling his son, Kevin, toward him. “I’m very emotional right now. I came here for him. So he could have a better future. I’m relieved that we made it, but sad for the others waiting on the bridge.”

But one more would make it. José Antonio Batista Silva, 35, a computer teacher from Puerto Padre, was let in because he’d submitted his paperwork before the decision was final. He made it into the U.S. at 7 p.m. and was planning to catch a ride to Kansas City.

“Thank God I was able to get in,” he said. “I was the last one.”

President Barack Obama announced Thursday afternoon that he was ending the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed Cubans to remain in the United States simply by touching American soil. The decision was effective immediately.

The decision was felt especially hard in this city on the border with Mexico, where dozens of Cubans have been arriving daily, racing to enter the United States worried that this exact moment would arrive. Cubans who’d made it to a safe house in this city Thursday morning said they believed dozens were in line to enter when the policy ended.

Tens of thousands of Cubans have crossed here in the past year, and their numbers had been growing every week. 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 Laredo field office.

Through the first two months of the government’s current fiscal year, an additional 6,500 Cubans have been processed through the Laredo sector, the sector where more Cubans enter than any other place in the U.S.

For decades, the Cuban Adjustment Act had given Cubans who arrive in the United States an almost guaranteed path to legal residency and eventual citizenship. The knowledge that they would be shielded from deportation has drawn hundreds of thousands of Cubans on raft trips across the Florida Straits and land journeys through Central America and Mexico.

For months, the Obama administration said there were no plans to change immigration laws or policy, but many Cubans sensed change was near when the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations.

The Cuban government has never liked the Cuban Adjustment Act and called on Obama to use his executive powers to end the policy.

At a safe house less than a mile from the border where more than a dozen Cubans who entered the country Thursday morning were waiting for a ride to Miami, few thought it would happen before President-elect Donald Trump took office.

Alvaro Moreno, 29, who arrived just hours earlier, said he couldn’t believe Obama was the one who would end the policy that since the era of President Bill Clinton had allowed any Cuban who touched ground in the United States to remain in the country for a year, at which time they would become eligible under the Cuban Adjustment Act to seek permanent residency.

“I can’t believe it. I don’t have any words. I don’t know what to say,” Moreno said. “No, I do. I’m hurt. I got saved by a hair. A hair.”

When Yorjany Cruces, 30, learned that he, his wife and two children had entered just hours before the policy had ended, he grabbed his phone to check for a text from friends who’d been waiting at the border to cross with his two daughters.

“This is why I told my wife we had to go now,” Cruces said, looking at his wife.

Just outside the border station, across the Rio Grande river, Marcos called frightened friends in Miami to let them know he’d made it across the border in time and was safe.

A friend was picking him up Friday to drive him to Miami. He hopes to find a job in his field, but is ready to do anything that would allow him to stay.

“I’ll do whatever needs to be done,” Marcos said.

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez