LAREDO, Texas – The first of at least 180 Cubans from a refugee camp in Costa Rica arrive in Laredo on Thursday and Friday.
They are among thousands of others who have come to the U.S. fearing they may lose their special immigration status allowing them to enter the country.
About a dozen or so of the refugees cleared customs around 10 p.m. Thursday, most of whom are part of a pilot program allowing them to leave the camp in Costa Rica, where some 8,000 others are waiting.
Many of the newest arrivals said they flew out of Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo Thursday.
Before that, they flew from Costa Rica to El Salvador or Tuesday, where they boarded buses to the Guatemalan border with Mexico. From there, they were on their own.
Randy Cuevas was among the first of the group to enter the United States.
"My family is happy. The entire world is happy (and) waiting for me to arrive," Cuevas said in Spanish.
He and other who left Costa Rica had to circumvent Nicaragua, which has shut its border to Cubans. Some believe the decision is because of Nicaragua's ties to the Communist Cuba.
Watch Jessie Degollado's five and six o'clock reports from Laredo.
Congressman Henry Cuellar said he recently visited the Cuban refugee camp.
"There was a little tension down there," he said.
Cuellar said questions were raised over the sense of fairness of deporting Mexicans and Central Americans, but Cubans get to stay in the U.S.
"That's the law that in my opinion needs to be changed," Cuellar said. He said once they're here Cubans immediately start receiving federal benefits.
"Nobody else gets that," Cuellar said.
He said after one year, they become legal U.S. residents and eventually naturalized citizens.
Asked how it felt to now be an American, one of the Cuban arrivals said, "It's the biggest I've ever felt."
Another said after raising his hands in the air after clearing customs, "The air is different, the weather is different, everything is different!"
Meeting them at the border is a fellow Cuban who has started an unofficial welcome to America program.
Cubans en Libertad is a group that offers assistance to fellow Cubans as soon as they are cleared by customs.
The group that of people helped today said that many of them are headed to Florida to join their families there.
The Laredo field office reported a 44 percent increase in Cuba arrivals at its various ports of entry in South Texas.