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A new and dangerous way into the U.S.

By Mark Potter, NBC News Correspondent

It's amazing the things you can learn when you look just below the surface.  That happened to us during our reporting for tonight's Nightly News story on the dramatic increase in the number of Cuban immigrants processed into the United States through the Southwest border, primarily Texas. What explains this?

Federal law enforcement officials suspect most of the Cubans are actually brought to Mexico by smugglers, who then arrange their transportation to the U.S. border. These trips are usually financed by Cuban-American family members, with the smugglers now choosing Mexico over routes closer to Florida to avoid U.S. Coast Guard patrols.

Because of a law passed during the Cold War 1960s, Cubans enjoy a unique immigration status that virtually guarantees them political asylum if they step on American soil.  No visa required. At the U.S. Port of Entry at Brownsville, Texas, we saw 14 Cuban men and women walk up to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and announce their presence. 

Less than a hour later, after being processed, they would walk out the door to a new life in America.  More that 11,000 Cubans have done that in Texas this year alone. (We also saw a woman from El Salvador who was caught with phony immigration papers being held for detention and likely deportation. She had no special law.)

Many of the newly-arrived Cuban immigrants go straight to a Western Union office to get money, then to the bus station or the airport for a trip to South Florida--for most the ultimate destination.  It's all very organized.

The smugglers, themselves, are also a lot more sophisticated than they used to be, although the trips are still incredibly frightening and dangerous.  A Coast Guard official told me that the illicit maritime smuggling business has been revolutionized by the GPS navigation device, basically the same one many of us use in our cars. With GPS on board, the smugglers can pick up and drop off their passengers at precise pre-arranged locations along remote beaches. Satellite phones and the new quieter four-stroke boat engines also help them elude or outrun the authorities.

What hasn't changed over the years is the powerful human story of desperation, family separation, corruption and tremendous risk at sea.  We saw that, too, and will have more about that on tonight's broadcast.