Improved U.S.-Cuba Relations Are Creating A Surge Of Cuban Migrants
October 24, 20169:23 AM ET
You might assume that with the thawing of relations between Cuba and the
U.S., Cubans would see positive change at home, and less reason to
attempt the perilous water crossing to Florida. You'd assume wrong.
U.S. law enforcement authorities are confronting a surge of Cuban
migrants trying to make the journey by boat across the Florida Straits;
it's the highest numbers they've seen in two decades.
"It's gotten busier and busier," says U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jeff
Janszen, commander of sector Key West, Fla.
Over the past fiscal year, the Coast Guard intercepted 5,396 Cuban
migrants who were attempting the crossing. That's nearly twice the
number from the previous year. About 1,000 Cubans managed to evade
detection and make it to U.S. shores.
The recent arrivals include Yojany Pacheco, 33, from Ciego de Avila, Cuba.
He and some friends pooled their money — the equivalent of several
hundred dollars apiece — and built a boat in secret, in the Cuban
forest. They got boards for the frame and a car engine from an old
Peugeot that they mounted in the middle of the vessel.
After a week of labor, the boat was ready to sail.
Pacheco pulls out his smartphone and proudly shows us videos he shot on
their voyage north.
We see 14 Cubans packed into a small wooden boat — 13 men and one woman.
They're wearing ball caps, grinning big and giving optimistic thumbs up
as they chug away from their homeland. The sun is rising behind them.
Pacheco opens Google maps and points to the route they followed: The
path goes from a red dot along the Cuban coast near Laguna de Leche to a
gold star outside Marathon, Fla., midway up the Keys.
The trip was about 200 nautical miles, and it took them three days.
Success on the sixth try
Pacheco, who has a degree in math, physics and IT, says he was driven to
leave Cuba because he couldn't make a living. Also, since he had tried
to leave five times before, he was suspected of being a smuggler and was
harassed by Cuban authorities.
On his fifth attempt, this past April, Pacheco made it almost all the
way to Florida, sailing tantalizingly close to Key Largo.
"We could see the beach, the yachts, the boats and cars, everything," he
recalls. But his boat was intercepted by the Coast Guard, and he and his
fellow rafters were sent back home.
"So," he says, "I built another boat. And here I am!"
When they finally landed in Florida on Sept. 9, Pacheco says, "my eyes
filled with tears. I looked around and everybody was crying. We hugged
each other. Our dream came true."
Under U.S. immigration policy known as "wet foot/dry foot," Cubans who
are caught at sea ("wet feet") are sent back home. But those who manage
to reach American soil ("dry feet") can stay legally in the U.S., get
benefits, and are put on a fast track toward citizenship.
Cuba is the only country that has that special status, which dates back
to the Cold War. It's designed to protect Cubans fleeing political
persecution under the communist Castro regime.
But now, most Cubans who are leaving are economic migrants seeking
better opportunity in the U.S., not political refugees.
Will the policy change?
Critics of "wet foot/dry foot" say the policy no longer makes sense as
the U.S. and Cuba normalize relations.
They note that many Cubans travel back and forth to Cuba once they
become permanent legal U.S. residents, clearly not fearing persecution.
Amid fears that the policy will change and their unique immigration
status will end, the migrants are becoming more desperate to reach U.S.
"It's amazing to me what they'll do," says Janszen, the Coast Guard
captain. "We saw one last year where they actually held an infant child
over the side of the boat to get us to back off, and we did. Thank God
they didn't drop the child overboard."
Coast Guard crews have seen others intentionally wound themselves in
hopes they'll be sent to the U.S. for medical care and allowed to stay.
"They've cut themselves. They've shot themselves," Capt. Janszen
recounts. "We've seen them drink bleach. We've seen them drink gasoline.
You just can't make this stuff up."
Many Cubans figure this might be their last, best chance to get into the
U.S. before immigration becomes much more difficult.
So, it's a cat-and-mouse game. The Cubans try to sneak through, and it's
up to the Coast Guard and Border Patrol to keep them out.
A hot spot for landings
To get a view from the water, we ride out from Key West on a fast boat
with John Apollony, a marine interdiction agent with U.S. Customs and
We cruise through gorgeous turquoise waters and stop by an uninhabited
island covered with mangrove trees about 20 minutes from Key West.
It's part of the Marquesas Keys, a hot spot for Cuban migrant landings.
The islands are remote enough that Cubans figure they have a better
chance of avoiding interdiction.
Apollony scans the beach through binoculars and counts nine abandoned
Cuban migrant vessels, known as "chugs," along just one small stretch of
Border Patrol agents are confronting migrants who are more emboldened
than ever, Apollony says.
"They don't want us coming near them, and they're gonna do everything to
get their vessel to shore," he says. "Sometimes they'll have homemade
weapons on board — machetes, jagged oars — and they will swing 'em at
you or threaten you to try to keep you away from them."
U.S. administration officials have been tight-lipped about any potential
changes to U.S. migration policy with Cuba.
But according to Coast Guard Capt. Janszen, if "wet foot/dry foot" were
to end, there is a plan to handle an eventual Cuban exodus.
"We'd have to not just have additional Coast Guard assets," he explains.
"We'd probably need Department of Defense assets. Navy assets. We'd
probably open up camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which we had to do
actually in the '90s. So there is a plan in place to deal with a mass
migration, if it comes to that."
In 1994, Fidel Castro opened the doors to anyone who wanted to leave the
island after a series of anti-government demonstrations. He blamed U.S.
policy for the rioting in Havana and threatened to unleash a mass exodus
to South Florida. More than 35,000 Cubans took to sea before President
Clinton declared an immigration emergency, ordering the Coast Guard to
intercept the rafters. Many ended up in camps in Guantanamo and Panama
before being allowed to migrate to the U.S.
A constant flow
Meanwhile, the Cuban flow shows no sign of abating, despite the
well-known dangers of the crossing.
Just days before we visited, a crowded Cuban boat capsized off the
Three of the migrants on board made it to shore.
Four others were found dead. Sixteen more were missing and presumed drowned.
The Cubans who complete the crossing are processed by the Border Patrol
and then turned over to two church groups in Miami.
The migrants are fed, given new clothes and put up in motels. They're
granted work permits.
If they don't have family in Florida, they're sent on to live in cities
around the country with programs in place to help them find work.
Yojany Pacheco has a job lined up in a restaurant in Albuquerque, N.M.
Another recent arrival, Arnalbis Rogel, 45, from Havana, says he'll take
any work he can get. When we met, he was about to be sent from Miami to
Leaving family behind
Rogel left his wife and three children back in Cuba. The youngest is
just 14 months old. He pulls out photos of his kids from his wallet,
smiles wistfully and taps his heart.
"I know that I have to be strong, because this is the only way I'll give
them a better life," he says.
Rogel worked as a baker and candy-maker in Havana. He was unemployed for
five months until finally he decided to leave.
He spent 25 nervous hours at sea.
"The sea has an ugly face," Rogel recalls, and he vows that no one else
in his family will make the same journey.
His group of rafters called themselves the Vikings. When their boat
landed in Key Biscayne on Sept. 7, "we jumped up and down and rubbed our
bodies with sand!" Rogel says, laughing and jumping and gesturing with
his hands to demonstrate.
The boat's navigator was Modesto Morales, 58, a truck driver from
Havana. Describing the journey, he says: "You're tense from the moment
you start until you land. You're looking around. If someone says,
'There's a light!' – 'Where?' We had to slow down, so we would pull in
at night to avoid the Coast Guard."
With his boat mate, Arnalbis Rogel, Morales was heading for a new life
in Houston. "It doesn't matter where I go," he says, "because anywhere,
anywhere will be better than Cuba."
Morales says that even with the thawing of relations between the two
countries and President Obama's trip to Cuba earlier this year, for
regular people, it means nothing.
"Nothing has changed," he says. "For us, it's all the same. No
transportation, no jobs, very low salaries. Lots of talk, but no change."
Morales adds: "In Cuba, there is no freedom of speech. Everything you
say is a crime."
Morales and Rogel both say they decided to get out of Cuba now while
they still had the chance. They're among those who fear that the days
are numbered for Cubans' preferential treatment under immigration law.
"If wet foot/dry foot ends," Morales warns, "we Cubans, we're lost!"
Arnalbis Rogel adds a political footnote.
"I told the guys, 'We have to build the boat in record time because
elections are coming! We don't know who's going to become president of
the U.S., and we don't know what changes will come.'"
These recent arrivals face an uncertain future in an unfamiliar land,
but they seem to have no regrets.
"We're like newborn children," Arnalbis Rogel says. "You start out
crawling. Then, baby steps. Then, you walk. And then, maybe, you run."
Source: Improved U.S.-Cuba Relations Are Creating A Surge Of Cuban
Migrants : Parallels : NPR -