NUEVO PROGRESO, Mexico — Standing along the Progreso bridge, Octavio Garcia shakes his head, disillusioned with the country he left in pursuit of work in the states.
Garcia, of Havana, Cuba, agreed to speak to The Monitor as long as he was allowed to use a pseudonym. He is among more than 60 Cubans currently sitting on the Mexican side of the Progreso-Nuevo Progreso International Bridge awaiting to make their asylum claims. Most, if not all, are fleeing political persecution.
“I can’t go back,” Garcia said.
The 35-year-old fears imprisonment awaits him if he goes back, or worse, being killed for having fled the island he’s called home his entire life.
Garcia said government officials seized the eight electric scooters he owned and left him without a business to support himself. He explains that in Cuba, the government can confiscate your business with little regard to legal due process, and threatens jail if you speak up.
“Little by little, one-by-one, government officials took my business from me,” Garcia said in Spanish. “If you don’t give them the money they ask for, or they threaten to throw you in jail. The situation has been like this in Cuba my entire life.”
While the focus in recent months has been on the throngs of families and unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, seeking asylum and surrendering before U.S. Border Patrol agents, Garcia and a contingent of Cuban nationals are arriving at ports of entry as well. This exacerbates the delays already felt by migrants awaiting entry into the country.
Winter Texans, and other locals making their way into the U.S. through the port, often stop to speak with them. On this day, one elderly woman who declined to give her name interrogated a young Cuban woman, asking if the Cuban national had come to work, and if so, where.
Fresh from shopping and enjoying an adult beverage or two in Mexico, groups of people walk past these migrant men and women who are strewn about the Progreso bridge, sometimes offering food or drink.
Lazaro Hernandez, 52, is another business owner who awaits to hear his name called by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, who guard a gate at the U.S.-Mexico boundary along the bridge.
From Matanzas, Cuba, Hernandez, who made the long trip through several Central American countries with his 33-year-old son, said he has been at the bridge for a little under 20 days. But he knows so many more here waiting on the bridge who have been waiting to hear their name called for nearly two months.
Hernandez said he worked as an artisan woodmaker, but continued pressure from government officials, mounting fees and threats of jail time left his business in ruin.
With no other means to support his wife and two younger sons, Hernandez and his adult son made the journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, hoping for a chance to claim asylum and begin working in the U.S.
Another man, Alejandro Sanchez, who’s in his early 30s and is also from Havana, stands over a fellow Cuban man with electric clippers.
He meticulously shaved the sides of the man’s head as he described losing his barber’s tools during his more than week-long trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. Finally, somewhere in Mexico, he was able to buy new clippers.
Sanchez, who has been cutting hair since he was 15 years old, also fled Cuba as government officials threatened to imprison him for practicing his trade without a license, which he said he can’t afford. Also, Sanchez said this would only keep officials at bay for months until he’s harassed again.
But for these three men, and the other 60 or so asylum-seekers at the bridge, there appears to be a glimmer of hope that soon, they may all be allowed to enter to seek their respective claims.
Earlier this week, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told them that as soon as the temporary “soft-sided” shelter in Donna is up and operational, they would be processing the Cuban nationals.
One man, who did not identify himself, said he wanted to let CBP officials know that he and other Cubans were willing to help put up the tents at the center in Donna, pleading for work after sitting on the bridge for so long.
Last week, CBP officials confirmed that the temporary tent shelters, which can house a maximum of 500 people, are expected to open May 1.
The news could not have come at a better time, as some of the people have been at the bridge for nearly two months, and most coming up on about a month’s time.
For their part, CBP officials said that due to the increase in Central American immigrants arriving at and around ports of entry, their facilities are overcapacity, leaving them unable to process more than a few people a week.
“No one is being denied the opportunity to make a claim of credible fear or seek asylum. CBP officers allow more people into our facilities for processing once space becomes available or other factors allow for additional parties to arrive,” CBP officials said in the statement.
But Ricky Garza, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said claims for asylum should be allowed as soon as possible and without capacity restrictions.
“The basic idea of asylum law is anyone fleeing persecution in their countries anywhere in the world, has the right to flee to another country and to request protection under the laws of that nation, and that’s something that’s codified in United Nations agreements, going all the way back to the 1951 convention on the status of refugees,” Garza said. “Historically, Cubans had very clear-cut asylum claims when they were fleeing political persecution, that’s because of the repressive nature of the Cuban government toward political dissidents, and that was something that would allow Cubans to often qualify for asylum protections under domestic U.S. law, and under international laws.”
He said the end of the “wet feet, dry feet,” policy in January 2017 leaves Cuban asylum seekers facing the same process that all other refugees face when arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
CBP added that the process to admit “inadmissible individuals” varies based on each individual case, and “available resources; medical needs; translation requirements; holding/detention space; overall port volume; and ongoing enforcement actions.”
Hernandez said they were told by port officers that they can allow in maybe one or two people per week, and that in the nearly three weeks he’s been at the bridge only a total of three people have been called off a list that was created by those awaiting their turn.
On Thursday evening, a small group of volunteers affiliated with the Angry Tias and Abuelas of the RGV, and La Union del Pueblo Entero, made a trip to the bridge.
Just before 6 p.m., the small group handed out cases of water, granola bars, toiletries and a few other items for the Cuban nationals, who expressed gratitude to the small group of volunteers. They also distributed blankets donated by Rev. Kathy Escandell of the First Presbyterian Church in McAllen.
One man said the volunteers were the first to bring more than just a case of water to them in all the time they’d been on the bridge.
Garcia, who has been at the bridge for roughly two weeks, was asked if he would be willing to wait two months to get in, or would he find another way to bypass the bridge into the U.S. Looking off into the distance, he simply responded, “I’m not waiting two months.”