Fewer Cubans Going to U.S.
Today, Coast Guard cutters are still operating in the Florida Straits -- but Cuban migrants are harder to find.
That's because fewer undocumented Cubans are leaving the island for the United States, not only through the traditional route across the Florida Straits but also through the newer route across the Yucatán Channel to the Mexican border.
The sharp decline is evident in the number of Cubans intercepted in the Florida Straits and those landing on South Florida beaches.
Consider: In the 12-month period between Oct. 1, 2007 and Sept. 30, 2008 -- the federal fiscal year -- almost 2,200 Cubans were interdicted in the Florida Straits and almost 3,000 landed on area beaches. But with less than a week left in the current fiscal year, less than 1,000 Cubans have been stopped at sea and less than 600 have made it to land.
And even the number of Cubans arriving at the Mexican border, the most popular route, is down from the previous fiscal year: 5,621 versus 10,030.
No one knows precisely why fewer Cuban migrants are arriving in the United States.
But U.S. officials, experts on Cuban affairs, recently arrived Cubans and community leaders cited several possibilities: the U.S. recession, stepped-up enforcement in the Florida Straits, Mexico's toughened migrant policies or less restrictive U.S. Cuba policies. Others suggest that we should not read too much into the current numbers.
"I just don't find the numbers tell any part of the story definitively," said Phil Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute where he monitors Cuban affairs. "To me, it's normal ups and downs, fluctuations in the migrant flow."
Similar declines in the Cuban migrant flow have occurred before -- but mainly after a mass migration event.
Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cuban nationals who reach U.S. soil are entitled to stay regardless of whether they have a visa. And under the wet-foot/dry-foot policy enacted under the Clinton Administration, only Cubans intercepted at sea are repatriated. Those who touch U.S. soil stay.
Rosa Martín Vergara, who arrived by plane from Cuba less than a month ago, said fewer Cuban migrants are taking to the sea because of the risk involved in making the voyage, and Mexico's recent crackdown on undocumented Cubans.
"These and other factors are probably deterring many people from leaving," she said in an interview Friday at the downtown Miami office of Catholic Legal Services.
In October, Mexico and Cuba worked out an agreement under which Mexico would repatriate undocumented Cuban migrants. Until then, undocumented Cuban migrants discovered in Mexico were fined and given temporary transit visas that enabled them to reach the border.
Up until recently, Cuban migrant landings from Key West to Palm Beach were almost a daily affair. While many Cuban migrants arrived on rafts or homemade boats, in recent times the bulk traveled aboard go-fast boats.
Officials at the Coast Guard and at Immigration and Customs Enforcement credit increased enforcement. "For years now, we have been working better and smarter with our DHS and local partners and we were able to maximize our resources and minimize duplication of effort, sharing information," said Victor Colón, assistant chief patrol agent with the U.S. Border Patrol Miami Sector.
At the Coast Guard, Capt. Peter Brown, chief of response operations for the Miami-based Seventh Coast Guard District, said more prosecutions have occurred partly because of a change in the law that enabled authorities to charge suspected smugglers with failure to stop -- even if they are not carrying migrants.
Cuban affairs experts and Cuban exile community leaders cited other possible reasons.
Ramón Saúl Sánchez, president of the Democracy Movement and a fervent advocate of Cuban migrants, said it was possible that President Barack Obama's April decision to lift all travel and money remittance restrictions might have played a role in persuading would-be migrants to stay home.
Under President Obama, Cuban exiles can now visit relatives on the island or send them money without limits. Under President George W. Bush, exiles could only travel to the island once every three years and could send only $300 every three months.
"The new policy of allowing more family contact helps to strengthen family ties and relatives miss each other less since people here can travel back and forth more frequently," Sánchez said.
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies, said the lower figures may mean something entirely different -- something analysts have not yet fully understood.
"Repression may be tighter in Cuba," Suchlicki said. "Maybe some Cubans have some hope that there may be some reforms introduced under Raúl Castro. But people are leaving, but we don't know how many are leaving. Other governments may be giving visas. There are many things we don't know."
Source: Miami Herald