By Trevor Bach
By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
Fourteen Cubans crammed onto the boat, destined for a twisting river that leads to the Yucatán Channel. To Harry Reinier, who had been waiting with the others in a safe house for weeks, the vessel felt like a kitchen sink.
Reinier didn't know what to expect at sea. He had never set foot on a boat before this moment. Food and water were scarce. He brought a backpack full of canned food and two jugs of water for each member of the group. He knew only that their goal was the east coast of Mexico — a trip he believed would take four days. Reinier had little money, few resources, and no guarantee the boat would ever reach land.
But the risk would be worth it. Before he left Cuba this spring, Reinier worked in a bakery, kneading dough for 10 hours a day and $12 a week. His mother had fled Cuba years earlier for Peru. When a friend told Reinier about a planned escape to Mexico, he emptied his savings account and paid $500 to reserve a seat on the boat. It was blind faith; he had never met the men in charge of the trip. "Everyone wants to leave Cuba," Reinier says. "When there is money, and there is a chance, that's when they leave."
The boat sputtered east for two days before the motor died. For more than a week, it drifted on the open sea. Food and water ran out. There were only raw fish and rainwater.
Then they finally reached shore. After suffering dehydration, sunburn, and exhaustion; after battling sleep-deprived, crazed boat mates; after spending five months in a Mexican prison; and after enduring marathon bus rides to Mexico City and Matamoros, Reinier crossed the Texas border.
Following his release from prison, Reinier walked to a small park across the street from the customs office in Brownsville, Texas. Large trees shaded concrete benches, and recently arrived immigrants rested in the park or waited for companions. Reinier began asking strangers for advice.
He eventually found his way to a Catholic church in the heart of Brownsville. The church contacted Sister Margaret Merkens, an ex-Catholic schoolteacher from Missouri who runs a small shelter for refugees about 30 miles north of the border. After a few weeks at the shelter, Reinier felt stuck. Five months ago, when he stepped aboard the homemade boat and set out for Mexico, he knew it would be the last time he would see Cuba. His sister is still there, along with his wife and child. He misses the place.
Reinier rarely leaves the shelter grounds, which are surrounded by acres of dirt and sugar cane fields, miles from any businesses that might provide work. He sometimes hitches a ride into town to go to the bank and cash the $500 in government assistance checks he receives monthly.
Most days Reinier either studies English or cooks dinner for other refugees. He has applied for several jobs in surrounding towns but thinks whites and Mexican-Americans are suspicious of a black man with a funny Spanish accent.
He's waiting for an immigration hearing to get his green card. "You could put a paper in front of me that says, 'This black guy will be your slave,' and I would sign it," he says, "because I have no idea what I'm signing."
But Reinier has some hope. He figures he can venture out on his own as soon as he learns enough English. He doesn't know much about the Texas away from the border and wants to leave the state so he can find work. He has heard of a place called Kentucky; he dreams of settling down there.
"I have no idea what it's like there," he says, "but it sounds calm and peaceful, with plenty of jobs for Cubans. I think that it's a place where I could raise a family."
Stories like these have some anti-immigration groups fuming. The Federation for American Immigration Reform supports ending all preferential treatment of Cubans, who were first given a path to residency in the United States in 1966, when the government passed the Cuban Adjustment Act. Ira Mehlman, a representative for the federation, says the policy encourages all kinds of illegal immigrants — including potential terrorists — to seek asylum on American soil.
"It's a vestige of a Cold War-era policy that didn't make sense even during the Cold War. Castro has always been happy to export his political dissidents here to yell and scream," Mehlman says. "Cubans should be treated exactly like everyone else — no better and no worse."
One immigration judge at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, Howard E. Achtsam, regularly denies asylum to Cubans — apparently on principle. This forces them to spend more time in detention, though they're eventually freed. "If you're unfortunate enough to get Judge Achtsam, that means you're probably going to get denied," says attorney Jodie Goodwin. "I think he has got to be the only immigration judge in the country that routinely denies asylum for Cubans." (The U.S. Justice Department acknowledges that every Cuban who has passed through Port Isabel in the past two years has been denied asylum.)