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More Cubans arriving with a 'dusty' foot

BROWNSVILLE, Texas – In the last couple of years here, officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection have noticed a dramatic increase in the numbers of Cuban immigrants arriving from Mexico to apply for political asylum.

This fiscal year alone, officials said, more than 11,000 Cubans were processed into the United States at Texas land borders, much more than in Florida. It's widely suspected most of them arrived with the help of smugglers financed by Cuban-American families in the Miami-area.

VIDEO: An alternative route into the U.S. for Cubans

Because of a law passed during the Cold War, Cubans enjoy a unique immigration status that virtually guarantees them asylum, and eventual U.S. residency, if they can make it to U.S. soil, including a border station – even if they were smuggled.

Based on the well-known "wet foot/dry foot" policy that requires Cuban migrants caught at sea to be repatriated, but allows those who arrive on land with a "dry foot" to stay, officers along the Mexican border talk about the immigrants arriving there with a 'dusty foot."

A complex human drama
For two days recently, some colleagues and I were allowed to witness the screening process at the Brownsville Port of Entry. It's where we saw the underlying human story that's not always covered in news reports about immigration numbers, trends, techniques and political arguments.

During that time, CBP officers processed 14 Cuban immigrants, most of whom had arrived at the U.S. border in the middle of the night. Many of them appeared exhausted, and nervous. It was obvious that a lot was at stake for theme.

Among those being screened were a middle-aged man and wife, both Cuban doctors from Camaguey. Together they carried one duffle bag that contained everything they owned now. In separate locations, they were each questioned, fingerprinted and photographed. Their few possessions – including a Bible – were searched.

About an hour later, they were cleared for entry into the United States, and together they walked out the door to a new life, and huge challenges – carrying that simple duffle bag. 

On the streets of Brownsville, we spoke briefly. Their plans were to head to Florida. The story of how they got here was typical. They said they had taken a dangerous trip from southern Cuba to Mexico on a fishing boat. The woman became emotional when she described the terror of that voyage. The word she kept repeating was "horrible." 

 Back in the office, another Cuban, a young woman, took her turn being processed. She seemed very quiet. When I asked her how she was doing, she said, "Tengo miedo," – "I am afraid." She was also upset about leaving family members behind in Cuba. "It's very difficult," she said.

This young woman would soon prove, however, that she probably had the grit to flourish in her newly adopted country. The day after meeting her, NBC producer AJ Goodwin and I flew to Miami, and were surprised to find that the same Cuban woman was also on our plane. On her own, unable to speak English, she had negotiated a complicated transfer in the sprawling Houston airport. At times she seemed quite lost and confused by the procedures, but she muddled through. The last I saw her, she was headed out the door at the Miami airport. 

A different reception
While Cuban immigrants are usually cleared into the United States rather quickly – unless they have criminal records or a known serious disease – it's not the case for other immigrants arriving without proper visas. We saw that, too, at the Brownsville Port of Entry.

In an office there, behind a closed door with a window, I noticed a woman pacing nervously. Sometimes she would come up to the glass to watch the Cubans being processed by the officers.

I asked someone about her status, and was told she was from El Salvador and had tried to enter the country with phony paperwork. With no special law to protect her, the woman was being sent off to a detention facility, and would likely face deportation. 

The last I saw her she was being taken to another room by a female officer to be searched. I could only imagine what she had already gone through getting this far, to now face this. It was a thought that had nothing to do with political debate or immigration statistics. It was simply a personal reaction to the plight of another human being struggling below the headlines. 

See Mark Potter's complete report on Cuban immigration via Mexico on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams on Monday evening.