Houston an isle of hope to Cubans
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.”
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.
“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.”