The last flight and first steps: 'Historic' surge of Cubans crossing into U.S.

Updated 4:24 PM ET, Wed June 1, 2016

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El Paso, Texas (CNN)Rubén Lorenzo Peláez circles the chair like a ninja, silently shifting from one foot to the other.

For a moment, the snip-snip-snip of his shears is the only sound in the room.
The scissors won't close all the way. His vision is blurry. And he's nearly 2,000 miles away from the loyal clients who once got bobs and buzz cuts at his barber shop in central Cuba.
But this is the first time in months he's felt at home.
It's been just a day since Lorenzo sat in an airplane's aisle seat, shaping his thumb and index finger into an "L" for "libertad" as a friend snapped his photo.
The chartered jet was one of dozens that shuttled stranded Cuban migrants from Panama to Mexico this month in what officials described as a humanitarian airlift.
    Its aim: help Cubans reach the United States after several Central American countries closed their borders to the surge of people pushing north.
    Lorenzo made it onto the last flight.
    Now he -- and thousands of others who say they're fleeing a repressive government and searching for economic opportunity -- are taking their first steps in the United States.
    As America's newest immigrants search for places to put down roots, refugee agencies say they're struggling to deal with the influx, and politicians are sparring over whether this group of immigrants should be here in the first place.
    It's a familiar refrain, but one with a twist: Because they're Cuban, these immigrants are in the United States legally the second they arrive, regardless of how they get here. And unlike the Central Americans who've flooded across the border in recent years, they have little reason to fear deportation.
    Lorenzo, 47, has been sleeping in a church pew since his arrival in Texas. And the bald and bespectacled barber says he's not going anywhere.
    "Here," he says, "is where I'm staying."
    Yadira Lozano Odio is overcome with emotion thinking of friends she left behind in Cuba.

    Risks and rewards

    Flashy photos of models strutting in a Havana fashion show and smiling tourist snapshots from new Cuba-bound cruises are a stark contrast to the scenes playing out as Cubans flood into this U.S. border city.
      Families sleep on rows of cots that stretch wall to wall in a community center gym. New arrivals rifle through boxes of used clothing, searching for something that might fit. A little girl looks shocked as a volunteer hands her two Barbies.
      Alianise Valle Paloma, 10, smiles as she tugs on one doll's yellow shirt and runs her fingers through its brown hair.
      "We haven't had toys for years," says her mother, Yadira Paloma Fombellida.
      In Cuba, she says, the family of four struggled to make ends meet. So they, like many Cubans, left for the promise of a better life in Ecuador, where they wouldn't need a visa to enter the country. But the family's efforts to make a living there didn't work out.
      "They didn't pay us. ... It was worse than Cuba," says Paloma's husband, Julio Cesar Valle Hernandez.
      That's a common thread in many of the stories shared by Cubans streaming into church-run shelters in El Paso, where they swap details of their harrowing journeys north:
      The financial hardships they faced in Cuba. The low wages they earned working as undocumented immigrants in Ecuador. The South American country's threats to deport them. The dangers of hiking for days through the Colombian jungle, facing rough terrain, armed groups and extortion by authorities. The fear they'd never make it out of Panama, where many of them were stranded for months after Nicaragua and Costa Rica closed their borders.
      Experts say several factors are fueling a spike in the number of Cubans to brave this dangerous journey to reach the United States. Chief among them: fear that U.S. policies that put Cubans on a fast track to legal residency could be repealed as relations between the two countries improve.
        For El Paso residents who've stepped up to help the arriving immigrants, the conversations have been eye-opening.
        "It's been a roller coaster," says Veronica Román, executive director of the Houchen Community Center, the first stop for more than 1,700 Cubans who arrived in the past few weeks. "It's a lot of mixed emotions when you hear their stories. ... You say, 'Wow, I'm taking my freedom for granted.'"
        As his daughter plays with her Barbies, Valle says the journey to the United States was far more difficult than he'd expected. But the trip was worth it, he says, to give his children a future.
        And still, he says, it was better than what his brother went through, trying to leave Cuba on a boat -- only to find himself stranded at sea for five days on a rickety raft, rescued by the Coast Guard and deported back.
        "At least in the mountains," Valle says, "there is earth under your feet."

        An unlikely location

        As Lorenzo sweeps the floor, the Rev. Karl Heimer leans back in the church office chair that's become the center of a makeshift barbershop. He doesn't have much hair left, but the Cuban barber has found a way to trim it.
        "How do I look?" the 75-year-old pastor asks him. "Can't you add a little hair on the top?"
        Heimer has spent decades working at this Lutheran mission less than a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border.
          He brings Bibles to jailed Central American and Mexican immigrants and hosts mission groups who build houses just across the border in Ciudad Juarez.
          "Never did I think I'd be helping my own people," says He