Two Cubans Make a Perilous Journey to America
They would never pass the third checkpoint. The first two had been a breeze, but every car got stopped here. The federales would find them and send them home and the whole journey would be a waste.
Sophia sat in the 2014 Nissan and tried not to panic. She wore glasses and wrote to make herself look calm and intelligent.
The truth was that she felt anything but calm. A closer look at Sophia’s paper revealed that she was writing prayers in Spanish, over and over. They all underscored the same thought.
Please, God, get me through this checkpoint and into the United States.
I first heard about Alex, 30, and Sophia, 27, through an American couple who lives in Houston. The Americans are friends with Alex and Sophia’s family.
Alex and Sophia wanted to leave Cuba for “economic reasons.” Alex told me he wanted to live in a country where you can work hard and earn what you deserve.
Earning what you deserve is weird for Cubans. The country runs on vestiges of communism which bend its economy into bizarre and impossible shapes.
Alex studied to be an economist. Like many other Cubans, his jobs were self-invented. He worked primarily as a supervisor over gardeners and anything else available. He couldn’t give a figure for his average pay per month. How much you make in Cuba depends on what you can throw together on the black market.
Alex could say he earned more than his wife Sophia, a pediatric surgeon.
“I studied so much and I have two specialties,” she said. “I work at the best hospital in Havana. I work on 5-6 children daily, I work 24-hour on-call every 5 days, and I earn $40 a month.”
You can’t support yourself on a surgeon’s salary in Cuba. Sophia relied on Alex and her extended family to keep her afloat.
She knew it was crazy. She’d rather come to the United States.
Leaving Cuba was hard. Alex’s mother sobbed and begged him not to go. He remained resolute, telling her it would be better for his and his wife’s future.
Sophia’s parents wanted her to stay to finish her pediatrics residency. She was one year away from finishing a four-year program. Cuban hospitals only let two people from Havana enter the pediatrics program every year, and she was selected. Leaving the country would mean going to a country where her degree wouldn’t count.
The couple refused to change their minds.
On June 14, they went to the airport. The whole family went to say goodbye. Everybody was crying because no one knew when they’d see Alex and Sophia again, or if they’d see them at all. Defecting from Cuba to America isn’t easy. It’s long, hard and dangerous.
Alex and Sophia’s trip would be no exception. They would face drug runners, rafts, federales, swindlers, smugglers and constant danger.
The Journey’s Path
Immigrating to the United States works differently for Cubans than for other immigrants. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act allows any Cuban who reaches America’s shores safe harbor as a refugee.
Alex and Sophia were never persecuted in Cuba (though they still asked me to use pseudonyms for this story). They feel like they could visit the country after leaving without being in danger.
The hard part is reaching the States. How do you leave a Caribbean island and get to the United States when your government will never let you officially travel there?
Sophia met a Belizean man through a coworker. He seemed legitimate, and he had connections with politicians and embassies. He said he could take them to America.
The plan was for her and Alex to fly to Belize on tourist visas. From there they would stay with the Belizean. He would give them forged Mexican travel visas that would take them to the United States’s border.
Everything would be above board, the Belizean told them. Mexican federal agents, the federales, would escort Alex and Sophia to the border. He made it sound like it they would be sponsored to travel to the States.
Once the couple hit the Rio Grande, all they had to do is was present their Cuban passports to American Border Patrol. They would be processed as refugees and receive permanent resident status.
Alex and Sophia sold everything they owned: their car, house, fridge, everything. They had roughly $21,000 for the trip. Alex gave $10,000 to the Belizean in advance. The next $8,000 would be paid on their arrival in Belize. The last $3,000 was their emergency fund.
That was the plan, and it went completely wrong.
Their trip started well. Alex and Sophia flew to Belize after spending 5 months obtaining their tourist visas. Even this would have been impossible until recently. Cuba barred doctors from leaving the country until January 2013.
They arrived at the Belizean’s house. He had a beautiful mansion with a view of the beach. He put them up in a room for a week. Everything was included in the $18,000 Alex had already paid.
When they were told a man was coming to pick them up, Alex and Sophia didn’t bat an eye. When a poor, rustic-looking laborer showed up and drove them to a flea-bitten hotel, they did.
The new place was tiny and filled with cockroaches and Mexican migrants. It couldn’t have been more different from the Belizean’s home.
The Belizeans moved the Mexicans and Alex and Sophia around from hotel to hotel. They passed them from person to person around Belize. It didn’t take long for Sophia to realize they were being moved by drug traffickers.
The couple was never attacked or harmed, but traveling with drug runners kept them on edge. Sophia told me she was glad to have been with another person. Traveling this road alone would be perilous.
Things got worse when they reached the border between Belize and Mexico. She heard the one word that can terrify a Cuban migrant- la lancha. The drug runners were talking about putting the migrants on a raft.
Some Cuban migrants put together unstable rafts and float them 12 miles to Florida. It’s even more dangerous than the route Alex and Sophia were taking. Many don’t make it.
But before any lanchas, the couple had to walk 40 kilometers (25 miles) down along the river banks. By 10:30 p.m., they reached the raft. The drug runners loaded the group onto it, pushed it down the river and left them.
Alex and Sophia sat on the raft with the Mexicans, drifting down a weaving waterway through the jungle. They couldn’t tell where they were going, or what was going to happen.
Eventually the river opened up into a larger body, the Rio Hondo. When they landed in the sugarcanes on the other side, the drug traffickers were waiting. The traffickers had crossed legally and simply waited for them on Mexican shores.
Alex and Sophia’s journey in Mexico did not go as well as it had in Belize.
The traffickers drove them to Chetumal, a coastal city by the mouth of the Rio Hondo.
The two Cubans felt unsafe and anxious as the drug runners drove them into the city. This part of Chetumal was impoverished. There were lots of drugs and guns.
The smugglers knew the Belizeans who Alex had originally paid. They dropped him and Sophia off with a Cuban couple living in Chetumal. Sophia bonded with their new host’s wife, another doctor.
The Cuban man who we’ll call Juan should have received his cut of the money from the Belizeans. He told Alex he needed more, as costs had gone up. Alex had to pay $400 to stay the night in another awful hotel.
Their troubles kept mounting. Juan’s wife gave Sophia the fake visa she’d been promised. Sophia had no idea what legitimate papers looked like, but these papers lacked a seal. They looked like they’d been made on somebody’s home computer. They were useless.
Not only would Alex and Sophia not get the escort the Belizean had promised, but they would be illegals in Mexico. The fake papers were useless. If the police caught them, they’d be deported and the journey would be wasted.
They had to keep going. The plan from there was to drive 230 miles to Cancún. From there Alex and Sophia would catch an 8 p.m. plane to Monterrey and cross the border.
By 5 p.m. that day, no one had said anything about driving to Cancún and Alex was getting worried. He paid Juan another $200 to take them to Cancún, even though they’d never make their flight.
When they arrived at 8:15, Alex and Sophia found that their tickets were for a 10 p.m. flight. They made it.
At the end of the 2-hour-15-minute flight to Monterrey, they met Raul, a viejo with no teeth. He looked like a poor simpleton who’d left his village for the first time to meet them. His truck was battered, bruised and ancient. It didn’t even have paint.
The guy was strange. He kept saying things that made Sophia feel uncomfortable. The sooner they were out of there, the better.
Raul dropped them in a hotel at 3 in the morning and told them he’d be back the next day at 10 a.m. He warned them not to open the door for anyone, even people who claimed to be him. He’d call to warn them.
By this point, Sophia’s stress levels were sky-high. She cried until 7 that morning.
Alex debated going for the border without Raul. Texas wasn’t far. But, he chose to wait for the old man. He and Sophia had no experience crossing the border. They could use help from somebody like Raul who had done this before.
The next day, Raul showed up in a brand-new Nissan. He even had a chauffeur. The suspicious-looking old man seemed more legitimate now.
Only problem? He wanted more money. Raul said he’d never been paid. Alex called the Belizeans. He found out Juan had kept Raul’s cut when he was supposed to forward it on, sticking Alex with the bill.
Alex gave Raul $700, telling them it was all he had. He and Sophia had more money hidden in their shoes, but Raul didn’t need to know that. That money was for living in the United States.
Raul accepted and drove them to Nuevo Laredo, across the river from Laredo, Texas. The tension mounted as they got closer to the border. The Mexican police keep a large military presence because of drugs, smuggling and murders. There were robots and cameras to check the cars for drugs.
The chauffeur was unconcerned. He pointed the statue of San Benito hanging from his rearview mirror. He claimed the saint was lucky and would wake him up whenever he fell asleep behind the wheel.
They’d need all the luck they could get to pass the checkpoints. The Mexican government had three stops. At the first two, they picked random cars to search for drugs and illegal immigrants. At the third stop, they searched every car.
Sophia was beyond stressed at this point. She jammed a periodico into Raul’s hands and gave him glasses to make him look smarter. He laughed at her, but she was serious. Anything to help get across the border.
She put on a pair of glasses and started writing prayers, over and over again. Alex got out his phone, called his family back in Cuba and asked them to pray.
They drove up to the third stop and watched as the federales searched the car ahead of them. Alex and Sophia told me they were afraid they’d be busted for sure at this point. The Mexican police could send them back to Cuba, even this close to the American border.
But when it was their turn, a federale waved them through without a search.
Raul dropped them off at a building on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. All they had to do was get through the building, walk 200 meters across the bridge and they’d be in America.
They almost didn’t make it. The Mexican side uses turnstiles that require 8 coins to pass. Alex had 6. He struggled with the barrier and fought the metal bar, to no avail. A Mexican official had to give him correct change.
Alex and Sophia left the building and crossed the bridge. Sure enough, their Cuban passports got them whisked away for processing. They entered America on June 25, 2014.
Everything after that was a kaleidoscope of interviews and background checks. Alex and Sophia told US agents their name, birthplace, profession, reasons for leaving, and names of friends and family.
They told me the agents were rude but overworked. Immigration officers at that station were been slaving through mandatory 16-hour shifts to handle the massive influx of immigrants.
Alex and Sophia passed every interview. The agents shook their hands, told them where to find the bus stop in Laredo, and dumped them onto the street at 11:30 p.m. They reached Houston by spending $200 on a taxi and buying a bus ticket.
They made it.
Life in America
Now that they live in the United States, Sophia wants to become a doctor again. She laughed and said, “Estudiar, estudiar, estudiar,” when I asked her about her plans.
Alex will support her while they learn English and she earns another degree. Then she’ll support him while she works as a surgeon.
They feel safe and seem happy to be done with the journey.
“We cannot believe we are here,” Sophia said.
Author’s note: All English quotations are translations from Spanish.
by Kyle Nazario