Cuban Exodus


      Earlier this year President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. The trip came one year after the two nations moved to re-establish diplomatic relations. Congress is considering steps that would ease restrictions on Americans traveling to the island nation.

      However, what you might not know is an astonishing number of Cubans have been surging into the U.S. They're taking advantage of a law that allows them to stay in the country if they get one foot on American soil. That law is a relic from the Cold War and one that some want to change.

      Congressman Henry Cuellar is a Democrat from the border town of Laredo, Texas, which has seen an incredible surge in Cubans crossing the Mexican border into the U.S.

      Rep. Cuellar: When you see the numbers, it is literally mind-boggling.

      After several years of averaging only about 7,000 a year, the flood of Cubans began, reaching 24,277 in 2014, 43, 154 in 2015, and another 25,805 in the past five months. This year could top the others; most of them come through Cuellar's District in Laredo.

      Rep. Cuellar: 45-47,000 have come in through just the Port of Laredo.

      It's by far the biggest flood of Cubans to the U.S. since the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, a mass exodus after Cuba's Castro government announced anyone who wanted to, would be allowed to leave. 125,000 Cubans came to U.S., many in flimsy rafts.

      Now, Cuban citizens intercepted at sea are turned back, but if they can manage to get one foot on U.S. soil, they're allowed to stay. It's called "wet foot, dry foot."

      Sharyl: Can you explain what the so-called wet foot, dry foot policy is for the United States?

      Rep. Cuellar: It basically says that if somebody from Cuba touches land in the U.S., they get to stay here. They don't have to show that there's credible fear or their asylum or a refugee.

      Cuellar, whose father was born in Mexico, says he's pro-legal immigration but insists U.S. laws give Cubans an unfair advantage.

      Rep. Cuellar: I can understand if somebody comes in and makes their case and says, incredible fear, refugee, asylum. You make their case in front of an immigration judge, but what other country gets a blanket, just get to the U.S. and you're in. Nobody else gets that.

      The new surge happened as word got out that President Obama would be changing the U.S. relationship with Cuba.

      President Obama, December 17, 2014: We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.

      Sharyl: If our relationship with Cuba is warming, why so many people in the last two years flooding across our border trying to come here?

      Rep. Cuellar: Basically they think that this new relationship with the U.S. means that Congress is going to change the Cuban Adjustment Act, it means that they're going to take that away. So they want to come in and take advantage of this law while it still exists.

      Sharyl: Would you go so far as to say the administration was keeping this secret? Surely they knew about these massive influxes.

      Rep. Cuellar: Uh, without a doubt they knew about it, no ifs or buts. Why they were not providing that information, why they were not even providing that information to members of Congress that represent those areas is without, with all due respect to the administration, I don't think that was the right thing to do.

      Cubans have been streaming into Laredo almost every day. They look fro the Cuban flag a few steps from the entry gate into the U.S>and know that the man inside a modest office will help.

      Alejandro Ruiz came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1992 and has found a calling sheltering new arrivals like Sarahi Casas. She, her husband, and 9-year-old son have been living with Alejandro for the last month.

      Casas: If it wasn't for Alejandro and Dania, which is the other girl, we would still be in that stairwell from the day we arrived.

      Belkis Mora Suarez is a doctor. She arrived this week, happy to leave Cuba behind.

      Suarez: I have opportunities, I'm a doctor. I have opportunities to get my children out of Cuba. Because there they don't have a life, they don't have a future.

      Ruiz gets them social security cards and helps them fill out paperwork that immediately qualifies them for federal benefits, including food stamps and a cash payment starting at $445 a month for nine months. After one year, they get permanent legal residency.

      Ruiz: I love my country. I love my people, [but] I never go back to Cuba. That's why I do this for them. Because they need it. They need this type of support.

      The route to Laredo has been round about, very few Cubans are allowed to fly directly to the U.S. so they've flown to Ecuador, made their way to Costa Rica, paid $555 to board chartered flights to Mexico, and then walked across the U.S. border into Texas.

      Last month, Cuellar visited a camp of Cuban migrants on the journey in Costa Rica.

      Rep. Cuellar: I said do you understand that in my area there's, you have unaccompanied kids who are fleeing very dangerous areas like Honduras and other places because of the drug violence and the very highest murder rates in the, in the world, and they're trying to flee that violence, and you're coming in more because you want to have political freedom, you want to you know another system besides Castro. The person looked at me, he smiled and says, I understand Congressman. But as long as we have this Cuban Adjustment Act, we're going to take advantage of that.

      Cuellar has authored a bill to end the Cuban Adjustment Act, but isn't optimistic about its chances in a presidential election year. The White House didn't respond to a request for comment, but Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said in January that there are no plans to change the policy. Costa Rica and other countries are already beginning to clamp down on their visa policies.