De­spite change in U.S. law, Cubans are still ar­riv­ing in Miami by sea

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARIO J. PENTÓN AND BERTHA K. GUIL­LÉN mpen­[email protected]­nuevo­her­ald.com

Paco sold ev­ery­thing he owned at home in the coastal town of Bahia Honda, west of Havana, to get out of Cuba. He also asked for help from rel­a­tives in South Florida. In an is­land where the min­i­mum salary is $10 per month, it’s tough to pull to­gether the $12,000 that peo­ple smug­glers in Miami charge for the clan­des­tine trip.

“In this town, ev­ery­one wants to leave” for the United States, he said. “Ev­ery­one wants to go.”

“In these kinds of towns, ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one, and who are the ones who want to leave the coun­try. The departure is or­ga­nized in Miami in to­tal se­crecy, and only on the last day are the trav­el­ers told where on the coast to meet,” said Paco, who would not give his real name be­cause leav­ing Cuba with­out of­fi­cial per­mis­sion is a crime.

Even though the U.S.

Coast Guard is un­der strict or­ders to re­turn all would-be Cuban mi­grants in­ter­cepted at sea, is­land res­i­dents con­tinue to try to reach the United States aboard rafts and speed­boats.

Paco first tried to leave by sea in 2009, with eight other peo­ple. Barely into the trek, the home­made boat broke up and they wound up drift­ing for five days. He built an­other craft later, but had to aban­don the plan af­ter au­thor­i­ties were tipped off.

“It scares me. Of course it scares me. But I am more scared of spend­ing my whole life stuck in this coun­try, with noth­ing to of­fer my chil­dren,” he said as he looked off into the hori­zon. “Over there I would still have time to work hard and give them a fu­ture.”

“The key thing is not to be turned back. Noth­ing else. We Cubans are fight­ers and we al­ways man­age. The key is to get out of here,” he said.

A Coast Guard spokesman said about 52 Cubans have been in­ter­cepted try­ing to get to the United States so far in Fis­cal Year 2020, which be­gan Oct. 1. Dur­ing FY 2019, 454 were in­ter­cepted at sea or de­tained when they landed in U.S. ter­ri­tory. And in FY 2018 the fig­ure was 107.

The num­bers were much higher be­fore 2017, when the U.S. gov­ern­ment ended the “wet foot, dry foot” pol­icy that al­lowed all Cubans who set foot on U.S. ter­ri­tory to re­main. In 2016, 1,845 un­doc­u­mented Cubans landed on U.S. shores. And in 2007, the num­ber hit 4,161.

Jorge Duany, di­rec­tor of the Cuban Re­search In­sti­tute at Florida In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity, said he ex­pects “a slight in­crease” in the num­ber of Cuban rafter ar­rivals this year though not a mas­sive ex­o­dus.

“Ev­ery­thing seems to in­di­cate that the im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion have re­duced the num­ber of Cubans who try to reach U.S. ter­ri­tory with­out au­tho­riza­tion, if we com­pare it with the last two years of Barack Obama,” he told el Nuevo Herald. “For now, the vol­ume of Cubans who come to Miami in dif­fer­ent ways (mar­itime, land and air) has be­come sta­ble and an­other episode as dra­matic and ex­plo­sive as the Mariel ex­o­dus and the (1994) balsero cri­sis does not ap­pear to be im­mi­nent.”

For­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama elim­i­nated the “wet foot, dry foot pol­icy,” which had been in place for more than 20 years, in Jan­uary of 2017. The num­bers of un­doc­u­mented ar­rivals fell af­ter­ward, but af­ter two years there’s been a re­cent uptick in the ar­rivals.

Martell Ramírez González fled Cuba a lit­tle more than a year ago aboard a home­made boat. He was ac­com­pa­nied by five other peo­ple, and af­ter four days of tough sail­ing landed in Key west.

“The ex­pe­ri­ence on that trek was unique. I don’t know that I would risk that cross­ing again. We had many dif­fi­cul­ties at sea with the bad weather, and the boat even tipped over,” said Ramírez, who now lives in Miami.

“We landed in Key West, in a part of the Ever­glades. We were afraid of get­ting off the boat, be­cause we thought there were croc­o­diles there, but in the end we had to do it,” Ramírez re­called.

He said the group ran into a man who al­lowed them to use his cell­phone to call rel­a­tives.

“We wanted to turn our­selves in to the po­lice, but he told us that if we did that we would be sent back to Cuba. We’re here thanks to that good man,” he added.

Ramírez then ap­plied for po­lit­i­cal asy­lum but spent sev­eral months in im­mi­gra­tion limbo.

“Life was re­ally hard when I didn’t have doc­u­ments. I was hu­mil­i­ated, do­ing the jobs that no one else wanted. I was earn­ing less than $300 a week,” he said. “Now I am a new man. I al­ready have a work per­mit and soon will ap­ply for per­ma­nent res­i­dence.”

The Cuban Ad­just­ment Act al­lows Cubans to ob­tain res­i­dence af­ter one year and one day in the United States, if they ar­rive at a le­gal port of ar­rival. Those who ar­rive by sea with­out doc­u­ments are not en­ti­tled to that ben­e­fit. But not all the le­gal ways of ob­tain­ing res­i­dence are closed off, said im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney Ale­jan­dro Vázquez.

“The mi­grants who ar­rive by sea and are not de­tained can ap­ply for asy­lum like any­one else,” said Vázquez, who rep­re­sents Ramírez.

The at­tor­ney said even those who are de­tained on ar­rival and can demon­strate a cred­i­ble fear of per­se­cu­tion if re­turned to the is­land could be freed on pa­role while await­ing a rul­ing on their asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions. They also could be held in im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion cen­ters pend­ing de­por­ta­tion.

While Cubans who ap­ply for asy­lum along the U.S. south­ern bor­der could wait months in Mex­ico for a rul­ing on their pe­ti­tions, the pe­ti­tions of those who man­age to slip into U.S. ter­ri­tory nor­mally take less than a year, said Vasquez.

He stressed that those Cubans should file asy­lum re­quests be­fore the one-year an­niver­sary of their ar­rival.

“De­tain­ing these peo­ple dur­ing the asy­lum process is in­fre­quent, but pos­si­ble, and de­pends on do­mes­tic se­cu­rity is­sues, the crim­i­nal record of the per­son or any pre­vi­ous im­mi­gra­tion vi­o­la­tions,” the at­tor­ney added.

Vázquez said he ex­pects the halt in con­sular ser­vices at the U.S. em­bassy in Havana, the ad­di­tional dif­fi­cul­ties ap­ply­ing for asy­lum at the bor­der and the drop in the num­ber of visas is­sued to Cubans will all lead to an in­crease in the num­ber of rafters.

This ar­ti­cle is part of a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the in­de­pen­dent Cuban dig­i­tal out­let 14ymedio and el Nuevo Herald.

A boat used by Cubans to reach Miami in 2016.

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