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U.S. turns back Central Americans, welcomes 'dusty foot' Cubans

By Patricia Zengerle and David Adams

WASHINGTON/MIAMI (Reuters) - Yasel Lopez's journey to the United States was as harrowing as any endured by the thousands of people rounded up in recent months at the Mexican border - he survived days without food and water and the death of a companion on the three-week trip.

But the end of his ordeal was unlike that awaiting most of the migrants, including nearly 60,000 children traveling alone in the past nine months, who face deportation after fleeing violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

That was because Lopez's journey began in Cuba, and those fleeing the communist-run island enjoy privileged U.S. immigration status.

Although they are just a small trickle compared with the surge of Central Americans that has caused a crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border this year, more and more of Lopez's compatriots are using the route to America.

Although he arrived in Texas without a U.S. visa, Lopez, a 34-year-old farm hand, was held only overnight before he was allowed to travel to his sister's home in Hialeah, a Miami suburb where he spoke to Reuters last week.

"We are lucky we are welcomed here. They look after us well and give us an opportunity," Lopez said.

As lawmakers debate how to handle the border crisis, some activists are angry about U.S. practice of turning away those fleeing gang-ravaged Central American countries - especially children - while the rising number of undocumented Cubans also coming through Mexico are automatically allowed to stay.

Cubans benefit from a relic of the Cold War: the 1965 Cuban Adjustment Act, which gave everyone leaving the island the right to legal residence once they reached U.S. soil, as long as they had no criminal background.

After a wave of boat people left Cuba for Florida in the mid-1990s, the policy evolved into the "wet-foot, dry-foot" rule, in which Cubans picked up at sea are returned to their homeland but those who reached U.S. soil are allowed to stay.

Lopez traveled with 33 others by boat to the Cayman Islands and then to Honduras before heading north through Mexico. He had earlier been caught twice by the U.S. Coast Guard in the waters south of Florida and was returned home.

President Raul Castro's easing of travel restrictions has boosted the flow. Cubans no longer have to obtain government exit permits, and the property of those who emigrate is no longer confiscated. Cubans can also remain abroad for two years without losing benefits such as free healthcare when they go back.

'DUSTY-FOOT' CUBANS

The U.S. Border Patrol said more than 13,500 Cubans without the proper papers had tried to cross the southwestern U.S. border since Oct. 1, 2013, more than during all of the previous 12 months. The 12-month total was about 5,500 four years ago.

So many are coming through Mexico that immigration activists have coined a new expression: "dusty-foot" Cubans.

The unequal treatment of the immigrants incenses many of those working to help them.

"The disparities are so unfair and so contrary to our notions of equality and justice in this country," said Aidil Oscariz, an attorney from the group Americans for Immigrant Justice who works with new arrivals.

The United States also issues a minimum of 20,000 visas each year to Cubans who apply directly from the island.

Some lawmakers involved in the stalled push for comprehensive U.S. immigration reform have questioned whether the adjustment act remains valuable. But there is little appetite to end it, especially among influential Cuban-American lawmakers staunchly opposed to the communist government.

Republican U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart acknowledged there have been "abusers" who come to the United States purely for economic reasons and travel back and forth frequently.

But the Cuban-American lawmaker, whose Miami-area district is a center of the U.S. Cuban community, said the law remains necessary. "The Cuban people are dealing with the political reality of an oppressive, Marxist, terrorist regime," he told Reuters.

"I am not minimizing the horrible circumstances these folks in Central America have to deal with. But they are different circumstances," said Diaz-Balart.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and David Adams; Additional reporting by Peter Polack in Grand Cayman; Editing by David Storey and Steve Orlofsky)

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