It took Cuban migrant Henry Salgera about three months to make it to the U.S. He said his bag — containing clothes, some medicine, deodorant and water — is all he carried with him.
It took Cuban migrant Henry Salgera about three months to make it to the U.S. He said his bag — containing clothes, some medicine, deodorant and water — is all he carried with him. - 
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Panama has been flying hundreds of Cuban migrants to Mexico, dropping them off close to the U.S. border so they can cross into America. The flights, expected to finish this month, are part of a deal with the Mexican government to relieve a backlog of migrants.

Panama is the latest of several Central American countries to close its border to Cuban immigrants trying to make it to the U.S., where they get special status upon crossing the border.

For many Cubans, like 28-year-old Darian Diaz-Martinez, there’s a new sense of urgency to their trek. Martinez knows his country’s economic ties with America are improving, but said he was unlikely to benefit from it if he stayed in Cuba.

“If there is improvement or not, it’s not going to be today,” he said, standing just past the U.S. border with Mexico in McAllen, Texas. “Many people say that their kids or grandkids will see improvement.”

He had reached the ultimate goal of his journey: entry into the USA. His path from Cuba required him to sneak past Central American border guards in several countries and do odd jobs in Columbia to earn enough money for various legs of the trip. Then he lost everything when, he said, he was robbed by a taxi driver in Mexico.

For him, getting into the U.S. was the easy part. Cuban migrants are entitled to earn green cards and access public benefits more quickly than migrants from other countries. But some want to change that.

Texas Representative Henry Cuellar and others have introduced legislation to end the Cuban Adjustment Act, the Cold War-era law that created the special conditions for Cuban migrants.

“No other immigrant group gets or receives this type of preferential treatment,” Cuellar told Marketplace. “I can talk about other folks in Africa and Asia and the Middle East, you know there’s always compelling reasons, but I think everybody coming in to the U.S. should be treated the same.”

News of efforts like Congressman Cuellars’ is spreading. Diaz-Martinez said everyone was talking about it back home in Cuba.

“Many Cubans say that this special status we have will end,” he said. “So I decided to come.” Diaz-Martinez said dozens of other Cubans he met along his journey passed rumors about the special status ending soon because of improving ties between the two countries.

The State Department said there are no plans to end the Act, or to pressure countries that make it easier for migrants to get here.

Testifying before a Senate committee in April, Francisco Palmieri of the U.S. Department of State said Cuba still has difficult economic and human rights conditions that keep the program relevant.

He said the government hasn’t asked countries like Panama to stop the airlifts, saying instead:

We continue to urge the countries to enforce their migration laws, to strengthen their border controls, and to address undocumented and irregular migration by returning people to their last point of origin.

Palmieri addressing the Cuban Adjustment Act at Senate hearing:

Cuban migrant Henry Salgera spent three months getting to the U.S. He called his trip an “odyssey” which took him through deserts and jungles, dodging criminals and authorities the whole way. The entire trip cost him about $4,000-$5,000, but for him, it was worth it.

“I would make about $15 a month in a warehouse” back in Cuba, he said as he checked in at a shelter in McAllen, Texas. “I am here in this country willing to do any work. My intention is only to work and improve my quality of living.”

Congressman Cuellar said the partisan divide in Congress, plus the election year, will make it difficult to change the Cuban Adjustment Act anytime soon, even as some communities with large migrant populations complain the privilege is being abused.

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Kimberly’s reporting from the Mexico-U.S. Border as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.

Follow Kimberly Adams at @KA_Marketplace