Hous­ton an isle of hope to Cubans

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By James Pinker­ton

Hous­ton’s stand­ing as an in­ter­na­tional city is be­ing strength­ened by hun­dreds of Cuban na­tion­als who have crossed the Texas-Mex­ico bor­der and are eas­ily set­tling into this Gulf Coast melt­ing pot.

They have been spurred by a U. S. im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy that not only grants po­lit­i­cal asy­lum to Cubans who flee the com­mu­nist- ruled is­land, but also ac­cepts those who reach Amer­i­can soil via

the long land route from Mex­ico. In bor­der towns in South Texas such as Brownsville, im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials are giv­ing Cubans doc­u­ments al­low­ing them to travel north.

Hun­dreds of Cuban refugees have sought help in Hous­ton of­fices of a large refugee pro­gram, where coun­selors have as­sisted 450 since lastMay.

“We used to see two or three a week, and we’ve started see­ing groups of 25 or 30 at a time and there were weeks when we have 60 bor­der crossers coming to our of­fices,” said Peter Stranges, su­per­vi­sor of refugee ser­vices at Catholic Char­i­ties of the Arch­dio­cese of Galve­ston- Hous­ton. “It’s un­prece­dented. What’s chal­leng­ing is we don’t want to turn down any­one who comes to our doors, so we’ve really scram­bled to come up with a team to han­dle this surge.”

Church do­na­tions

The Cuban bor­der crossers of­ten ar­rive in Hous­ton with lit­tle more than the clothes on their backs and im­mi­gra­tion doc­u­ments, Stranges said, adding that Catholic parishes have stepped up to help pro­vide ba­sic goods.

On Fri­day, a group of five Cuban im­mi­grant fam­i­lies at­tended lunch and play­time at St. Lau­rence Catholic Church in Sugar Land, where parish­ioners turned over $ 8,000 worth of do­na­tions, fur­ni­ture, food and gifts.

Among the new ar­rivals was Nay­dyd del Valle, 35, who ar­rived in Hous­ton in Oc­to­ber with her two daugh­ters, Nay­dyd, 10, and Ai­noa, 8, and her younger sis­ter In­di­ana Galvez, 31.

The women had a dif­fi­cult two- year odyssey across South and Cen­tral Amer­ica and ended up in an im­mi­gra­tion camp in­Mex­ico af­ter wad­ing across the river from Guatemala. They even­tu­ally crossed the Texas- Mex­ico bor­der at Brownsville and made their way to Hous­ton.

Stay­ing in­Hous­ton

“We have de­cided to stay here. We aren’t go­ing any­where. We like Hous­ton,” said del Valle, who is study­ing to be­come a court in­ter­preter. Her sis­ter, an ex­pe­ri­enced chef, is wait­ing to get im­mi­gra­tion doc­u­ments al­low­ing her to work legally.

Both women hope that some­day, they will be able to help other refugees who have come to Hous­ton.

“It’s like to­day— we ap­pre­ci­ate ev­ery­thing the church has done for us, ev­ery­thing they have given tomy daugh­ters, but what we really ap­pre­ci­ate is the feel­ings,’” del Valle ex­plained. “The way they treated our daugh­ters and the other kids, the way they were so ex­cited to see us and in­ter­ested in us. That’s what we ap­pre­ci­ate most, all the kind­ness and love they share with us.”

Michelle Brous­sard, the so­cial con­cerns co­or­di­na­tor at the Sugar Land church, said help­ing newly ar­rived im­mi­grants is an easy sell in a con­gre­ga­tion that counts many im­mi­grants. At least 75 fam­i­lies pitched in with do­na­tions, she said.

“It gives parish­ioners a chance to serve, and refugee re­set­tle­ment kind of just speaks to ev­ery­body’s heart be­cause we are such amul­ti­cul­tural area,” said Brous­sard.

Asela Castillo, 40, is a Cuban po­lit­i­cal refugee who ar­rived in Hous­ton in Novem­ber af­ter ap­ply­ing for asy­lum in Cuba. She and her two sons, Adan, 15, and Rafael, 8, flew toMi­ami and then were re­set­tled here by Catholic Char­i­ties. She is wait­ing for her hus­band to leave the coun­try.

“I likeHous­ton a lot,” said Castillo, who has found­work as a house­keeper in an up­scale ho­tel. “It’s a pretty city, and wherewe live is very quiet and there is­work and for us that’s an ad­van­tage.”

Castillo said more Cubans are leav­ing the is­land na­tion not only be­cause of lim­ited po­lit­i­cal free­dom, but due to eco­nomic hard­ships that have led to se­vere food ra­tioning.

“It was in­cred­i­ble to see the stores that had such a stock of things, in­clud­ing things I had never seen for sale inmy life,” said Castillo of her first shop­ping trip in Hous­ton. Com­modi­ties such as milk and fresh fruit are fi­nan­cially out of reach in Cuba, she ex­plained.

Sea ver­sus land route

Her son, Adan, a ninth- grader, said he was im­pressed with his school and can al­ready fore­see a “pros­per­ous” fu­ture in Hous­ton.

“If you study hard, what you study is what you can be­come,” said Adan, who is in­ter­ested in writ­ing and could en­vi­sion a ca­reer as jour­nal­ist.

And while the Cuban ex­o­dus into Hous­ton is rel­a­tively new, the pol­icy al­low­ing those who ar­rive by land to seek res­i­dency be­gan in 1995. Cubans in­ter­cepted at sea are re­turned, so it has been re­ferred to as the “wet­foot, dry- foot pol­icy.”

“What has hap­pened in the last 10 or 15 years there been a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Cuban na­tion­als coming through Mex­ico to the United States, and the wet foot, dry foot ap­plies on the RioGrande as­much as it does on the Florida coast,” said pro­fes­sor David Spener, chair­man of the De­part­ment of So­ci­ol­ogy at Trin­ity Univer­sity in San An­to­nio. “It used to be Do­mini­cans were in New York City, and Cubans in South Florida, but now there are sig­nif­i­cant com­mu­ni­ties lo­cated in other parts of the coun­try.”

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