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With U.S.-Cuba relations on the mend, some Cubans are afraid they'll lose their favored status as political refugees. Many are making a beeline for the U.S. border, and they're not floating on rickety boats to Florida. These Cubans are going through Mexico and making a hassle-free entry into Laredo, Texas. NPR's John Burnett reports not everyone is glad to see them, even as they are glad to be there.
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JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Laredo's Little Havana is directly in front of the International Bridge. Recently arrived Cubans sit on a grimy stairway between a shoe store and a fried chicken parlor. Reggaeton music pulses as hustlers offer SIM cards and bus fares to Miami. This is their first glimpse of the promised land.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Pues bienvenido.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Gracias.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Gracias.
BURNETT: These women are part of a large group of Cubans who are getting here by way of South and Central America. Every day, dozens of them fly into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, walk across the bridge and gain automatic entry to Laredo.
TAMARA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "We're happy," says Tamara Rodriguez, a 40-year-old beautician from Havana wearing giant glasses. "I can't wait to sleep in a bed again."
In the past two years, thousands of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America have been showing up at the Texas border, requesting asylum from ruthless criminal gangs back home. After they surrender to federal agents, they're detained or sent to youth shelters or released with ankle monitors. If they can't convince a hearing officer they deserve asylum, they're ordered deported. Cubans, on the other hand, have only to present a passport, then they receive food stamps, Medicaid, rent assistance and, eventually, a work permit and legal residence.
RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "Really, I sympathize with other Latinos because Cubans are the only ones who can take advantage of this law," Tamara, the hairdresser, continues. But we're the only ones who have been subjected to the economic blockade for 50 years and so you give us these benefits. The Cubans' free ride rubs some people the wrong way in heavily Mexican-American Laredo. This historic border city has long been defined by immigration.
HENRY CUELLAR: But when you have a blanket approach - you come in, step in the U.S. and fast-track to U.S. citizenship, I don't think that's fair to everybody else.
BURNETT: Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat, represents Laredo in Congress. He supports a bill that would do away with the preferential benefits for Cuban immigrants. Even Republican Cuban-Americans in Congress from Florida are starting to agree that Cubans should be treated like other immigrants. Again, Henry Cuellar.
CUELLAR: They never see border patrol. They are never put in a detention center. In about 45 minutes to one hour, they're processed at the bridge, and they get to stay in.
BURNETT: In 2014 and 2015, more than 67,000 Cubans immigrated to the United States. Sixty-five percent of them came through Laredo, far surpassing South Florida as the favored entry point. The days when the Coast Guard played cat-and-mouse with ramshackle Cuban boats off the Florida coastline are over. The current route winds overland through Ecuador, Central America, Mexico and, finally, South Texas. Last month, the border dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua was resolved, and 8,000 stranded Cubans were able to continue their journeys to Laredo. Ricardo DeAnda is an activist lawyer in Laredo whose office is right around the corner from the bridge where Cubans step into America.
RICARDO DEANDA: And they are joyful occasions. I mean, I love seeing it. It's just unfortunate that we discriminate in this manner and that we don't provide these same opportunities to others that are in much more dire situations.
BURNETT: The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, a relic of the Cold War, was intended to offer Cubans a refuge from political persecution. But U.S. officials acknowledge most Cubans now come to the U.S. for economic opportunity, the same reason that drives many other Latin American immigrants. Nixon Funes is a 24-year-old Honduran sitting in the courtyard of a migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. When darkness comes, he'll attempt to cross the fast-flowing Rio Grande, evade the border patrol and make his way to Atlanta. He's envious of the Cubans.
NIXON FUNES: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "For me, it's unjust," he says. "It would be fair if we were all treated the same - Cubans, Hondurans and Guatemalans. But we have no value. They treat us like dogs. Less than a mile away, back at the International Bridge in Laredo, husband and wife Adolfo Garcia and Judith Sotolongo, from Dos Rios, Cuba, know they're getting special treatment. And they don't want to sound ungrateful.
JUDITH SOTOLONGO: (Speaking Spanish).
ADOLFO GARCIA: Medicaid.
BURNETT: "We have a food card and Medicaid. We're waiting for work permits," they say. We want to thank the American people very much for embracing us and giving us all these benefits.
SOTOLONGO: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Aware of the Cubans surging across the southern border, the State Department released a statement in December. The administration has no plans to alter current migration policy regarding Cuba. John Burnett, NPR News, Laredo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.