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Latin America & Caribbean

What's drawing Cuban rafters back to Florida despite their limited legal options to remain?

The arrival of a homemade sailboat with at least 10 suspected Cuban migrants on a popular South Florida beach on Monday appears to indicate a resurgence in illegal migration from the communist-run island hit hard by the pandemic.
2 Jun 2021 – 07:21 PM EDT
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This suspected migrant smuggling sailboat came ashore near Key Biscayne, Florida with ten unidentified passengers on Memorial Day, May 31, 2021. Crédito: Courtesy of Alex Cobo

KEY BISCAYNE - It was the end of a busy Memorial Day holiday when ten migrants ran ashore in the early evening after beaching their sailboat and disappeared into the bushes in Cape Florida state park, evading local authorities, according to video filmed by eye-witnesses.

The U.S. Border Patrol said none had turned themselves in or been detained by Wednesday. “This is a suspected maritime smuggling event that originated in Cuba,” U.S. Border Patrol Agent Adam Hoffner told Univision. “The event is still under investigation,” he added.

Despite preferential immigration laws favoring Cuban migrants in the United States, the migrants will likely be deported if they are tracked down or turn themselves in, according to Wilfredo Allen, a veteran immigration lawyer in Miami.

“These guys who just arrived have zero chance. They have no legal entry. None of them will ever get legalized unless they get taken to an [immigration detention facility], get paroled out and file for asylum,” he said.

Rising numbers

As Cuba battles one of the worst economic crises since its 1959 revolution, more people are risking the dangerous journey to the United States resulting in tragedies on the high seas, though the numbers still remain low compared to previous years.

Coast Guard crews have interdicted 323 Cubans at sea since October, more than 200 of them in the past two months. Only 49 Cubans were interdicted by the Coast Guard the previous year (October 2019 - September 2020).

The Coast Guard abandoned a search at the weekend for 10 missing people after a boat that sailed from Cuba capsized last Wednesday night 16 miles from Key West. Eight people who were rescued the next day by the U.S. Coast Guard. Two bodies were pulled from the water.

Coast Guard officials said they found the survivors in the water, but their boat was nowhere in sight. Some 46 Cuban migrants were repatriated to Cuba, Monday, from four interdictions, the Coast Guard. Most were picked up at sea off the Florida Keys.

Earlier this year, authorities found three Cubans who had been stranded on an island in the Bahamas for 33 days, who said they survived on coconuts, rats, conch and snails.

The current migrant wave is a blip compared to the situation before Obama terminated the ‘dry-foot,wet-foot policy. For example, the Coast Guard intercepted 5,396 Cuban migrants in fiscal year 2016 and 1,468 in 2017.

It nowhere near comparable to the 1994 rafter crisis when more than 30,000 Cubans took to the sea and the U.S. government was forced to build a massive refugee camp at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, says Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University (FIU). Even so, “it’s a warning warn. It does seem to be a trend,” said Duany.

“It doesn’t look like we are going to see a repeat of that. But the stories you hear suggest there’s a tremendous pressure in Cuba today from people stuck there and wanting to leave,” he added.

'Dry foot, wet-foot'

Former President Barack Obama eliminated a so-called ‘dry-foot, wet foot’ policy shortly before leaving office in January 2017, that gave Cubans who reached U.S. soil a special parole, allowing them to remain even if they arrived illegally. The policy, which was created in 1997 in an effort to halt a wave of ‘rafters’ in the mid-1990s, designated any U.S. soil as a point of entry into the country. Anyone picked up at sea was considered ‘wet foot, and repatriated to Cuba by the Coast Guard.

As a result, these days any undocumented Cubans who enter the country without being inspected and processed by immigration officials at a proper border entry point, have no legal right to remain. They do still have the option of turning themselves in and seeking to make a case for asylum on grounds of political, racial or religious persecution.

While living under communist rule makes Cubans more eligible for asylum than other nationalities, persecution is not easy to prove, Allen warned. Only about 30% of Cuban cases get approved he said.

Cuban Adjustment Act

Allen said the migrants would have been better off waiting on the beach and surrendering themselves to the Border Patrol.

If the Cuban migrants avoid detention and remain in hiding, they would also be ineligible for residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act which allows Cubans to apply for accelerated U.S. residency a year after arriving in the United States. “To apply for adjustment, you must be inspected and provided entry to the United States. If you land and then you run and they detain you later there’s no inspection,” Allen explained.

“I have people come see me after they are here for a year and I have to tell them, ‘Congratulations, not only don’t you qualify for Cuban Adjustment but you no longer qualify for asylum because you have to apply for asylum in your first year in the United States,” he added.

Factors driving migration

A number of factors are being attributed to the increase in migrants, from the dire economic recession in Cuba to the spread of coronavirus and the slow roll out of covid-19 vaccines. The pandemic has also cut off all legal means of migrating from Cuba to other countries in Latin America, due to the cancellation of air travel.

“It’s the worst economic moment we have seen in the last 30 years in Cuba,” said Duany. “The lines, the lack of food, the sheer desperation of people who can’t make ends meet is driving people to the sea” he added.

The Cuban economy shrank by 11 percent last year, mostly due to the loss of tourism after the island was forced to go into lock down. Some residents say the pandemic has been far worse in Cuba than the official numbers reported - 977 deaths and 144,000 cases in total - which is relatively low for an island of 11 million inhabitants.

Making it worse was the closure of the U.S. consulate in Havana by the Trump administration in 2018, due to the mysterious illness of employees from apparent “sonic” attacks. That has made it practically impossible for Cubans to process visa requests to visit relatives in the United States under a family reunification program.

Several Cuban American members of Congress have presented a bill to process family reunification visa requests at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Station in Cuba, until a suitable place is found elsewhere on the island.

"Allowing applicants to conduct their interviews at the naval station would ensure that U.S. personnel remain safe and would greatly ease the burden on Cuban applicants by allowing them to remain on the island during the application process," Mario Diaz-Balart, the Republican congressman from Miami, wrote in an op-ed column in the Nuevo Herald on Tuesday.

The Key Biscayne sailboat

It remains unclear who the migrants are and where they came from, though Univision found evidence in the sailboat that indicated they had come from Cuba. A plastic bucket in the boat carried lettering from Cupet, Cuba’s state-owned gasoline company.

While the boat was structurally intact it had no engine and had only a canvas tarp sail with a mast and rigging made from tree branches, rope and some adjustable metal tension screws. It seemed unlikely to have been able to make the 225-mile journey from Cuba’s north coast to Miami, battling the strong currents of the Straits of Florida.

Ropes on the prow indicated it might have been towed part of the way by a smuggling vessel. There were also several unopened bottles of water from a Florida supermarket found on board.

"It doesn't look seaworthy," said Alex Cobo, a local resident who witnessed the boat's arrival. "They must be so desperate to risk it like that. You have to feel sorry for them." he added.