Cuban Border Crossers Make Houston Their Home

From left to right: Naydyd S. Lara, Ainoa Lara, Indiana Galvez, Naydyd del Valle.
Last year the number of Cuban immigrants coming to Texas jumped by 60 percent. Recent changes in Cuban law make it easier for people to travel to South America. From there, they can reach the American border on land.

They're called Cuban border crossers. They've come to Texas by way of Central America and now, they're in a cramped classroom in Southwest Houston learning English.

 "One dollar."

 Response: "One dollar."

"Five dollars."

 Response: "Five dollars."

This class of recent arrivals is at capacity. The coordinators, Catholic Charities, report they've helped 450 Cuban border crossers in the last seven months. That's equal to their yearly case load of refugees from all over the world.

Peter Stranges is with the program.

"We kind of liken it to a situation like Hurricane Katrina. It was a humanitarian response to what amounted to a terrible disaster like we all know, we have waves of people showing up at our doors, and it’s essentially an unfunded mandate at this point."

The border crossers have endured grueling journeys. They usually fly to South American countries with loose visa requirements, like Ecuador. From there they make their way north. It took Naydyd del Valle and her daughters two years to make this trip.

"We decide to go to Ecuador, because Ecuador was a place they didn't request for visa. We decide to go to Peru, and then we decided to go by Brazil., We took a bus from Brazil to Venezuela, Venezuela to Colombia, we take a flight Colombia, Costa Rica. We pass through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and then we get to Mexico."

Once in Mexico, a fifth get deported. The rest are encouraged to go north. That's because they can't legally find work there. Jaime Suchlicki is with the University of Miami.

"Most of these countries don’t welcome Cubans. They may welcome them for a few days but they want them to go on and to go to someplace. So settling in Central America is very difficult and those Cubans are going through a very rough time."

Suchlicki says this increase in immigration isn't a spike, it's the beginning of a mass exodus.

Last year, Raul Castro passed a decree making it easier for citizens to travel outside the country. At the same time, the Cuban economy got weaker. The U.S. Coast Guard is on high alert, making water crossings to Florida risky.

Under the "Wet foot dry foot policy", only Cubans who touch American soil can seek asylum.

So they're coming to Texas. Some go on to Miami, but many choose to stay. It's easy to find jobs here.

Naydyd del Valle, who came to Houston in September, likes it just fine, and she already sounds like a Texan.

"I ain’t going nowhere, I’m staying just right here."

The number of Cubans in Houston has been rising for 20 years, but this rate is unprecedented. As more Cubans make the trip from Havana to Houston, the composition of the city is starting to change.