Last flight, first steps – Cubans surge across US border
Last flight, first steps: Cubans surge across US border
Cubans say they’re fleeing a repressive government
Author: By Catherine E. Shoichet CNN
EL PASO, Texas (CNN)
Rubén Lorenzo Peláez circles the chair like a ninja, silently shifting
from one foot to the other.
For a moment, the snip-snip-snip of his shears is the only sound in the
The scissors won’t close all the way. His vision is blurry. And he’s
nearly 2,000 miles away from the loyal clients who once got bobs and
buzz cuts at his barber shop in central Cuba.
But this is the first time in months he’s felt at home.
It’s been just a day since Lorenzo sat in an airplane’s aisle seat,
shaping his thumb and index finger into an “L” for “libertad” as a
friend snapped his photo.
The chartered jet was one of dozens that shuttled stranded Cuban
migrants from Panama to Mexico this month in what officials described as
a humanitarian airlift.
Its aim: help Cubans reach the United States after several Central
American countries closed their borders to the surge of people pushing
Lorenzo made it onto the last flight.
Now he — and thousands of others who say they’re fleeing a repressive
government and searching for economic opportunity — are taking their
first steps in the United States.
As America’s newest immigrants search for places to put down roots,
refugee agencies say they’re struggling to deal with the influx, and
politicians are sparring over whether this group of immigrants should be
here in the first place.
It’s a familiar refrain, but one with a twist: Because they’re Cuban,
these immigrants are in the United States legally the second they
arrive, regardless of how they get here. And unlike the Central
Americans who’ve flooded across the border in recent years, they have
little reason to fear deportation.
Lorenzo, 47, has been sleeping in a church pew since his arrival in
Texas. And the bald and bespectacled barber says he’s not going anywhere.
“Here,” he says, “is where I’m staying.”
Risks and rewards
Flashy photos of models strutting in a Havana fashion show and smiling
tourist snapshots from new Cuba-bound cruises are a stark contrast to
the scenes playing out as Cubans flood into this U.S. border city.
Families sleep on rows of cots that stretch wall to wall in a community
center gym. New arrivals rifle through boxes of used clothing, searching
for something that might fit. A little girl looks shocked as a volunteer
hands her two Barbies.
Alianise Valle Paloma, 10, smiles as she tugs on one doll’s yellow shirt
and runs her fingers through its brown hair.
“We haven’t had toys for years,” says her mother, Yadira Paloma Fombellida.
In Cuba, she says, the family of four struggled to make ends meet. So
they, like many Cubans, left for the promise of a better life in
Ecuador, where they wouldn’t need a visa to enter the country. But the
family’s efforts to make a living there didn’t work out.
“They didn’t pay us. … It was worse than Cuba,” says Paloma’s husband,
Julio Cesar Valle Hernandez.
That’s a common thread in many of the stories shared by Cubans streaming
into church-run shelters in El Paso, where they swap details of their
harrowing journeys north:
The financial hardships they faced in Cuba. The low wages they earned
working as undocumented immigrants in Ecuador. The South American
country’s threats to deport them. The dangers of hiking for days through
the Colombian jungle, facing rough terrain, armed groups and extortion
by authorities. The fear they’d never make it out of Panama, where many
of them were stranded for months after Nicaragua and Costa Rica closed
Experts say several factors are fueling a spike in the number of Cubans
to brave this dangerous journey to reach the United States. Chief among
them: fear that U.S. policies that put Cubans on a fast track to legal
residency could be repealed as relations between the two countries improve.
For El Paso residents who’ve stepped up to help the arriving immigrants,
the conversations have been eye-opening.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” says Veronica Román, executive director of
the Houchen Community Center, the first stop for more than 1,700 Cubans
who arrived in the past few weeks. “It’s a lot of mixed emotions when
you hear their stories. … You say, ‘Wow, I’m taking my freedom for
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