US sees surge in illegal migration from Cuba

IMMIGRATION::More Cubans are risking their lives to reach the US by sea amid fears of a change in US policy that now grants residency to those who arrive on US soil

AFP and AP, WASHINGTON and MIAMI

Wed, Jan 07, 2015 - Page 7

The number of Cubans trying to reach the US illegally by sea surged last month, after Havana and Washington announced a landmark rapprochement, the US Coast Guard said.

US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, announced on Dec. 17 that the two countries would revive diplomatic ties severed during the Cold War and move to ease the five-decade US trade embargo.

Last month, the US Coast Guard plucked 481 Cuban men, women and children trying to reach Florida from rickety often homemade boats — double the number from a year earlier, the coast guard said.

The figure was up 117 percent from December 2013, US Coast Guard 7th District Commander Rear Admiral Jake Korn said.

On the first few days of this month, another 96 Cuban migrants were picked up at sea, the coast guard said.

The surge might suggest more Cubans believe it is time to risk crossing the shark-infested Straits of Florida for the US, amid fears that US bilateral policy changes are now afoot.

At present, Washington allows every Cuban who arrives on US soil to receive US residency and the right to work. It is the only country whose nationals are granted this blanket privilege. They are also guaranteed limited health care coverage — a benefit not even every American is guaranteed.

However, Cubans who are picked up at sea are repatriated. The dichotomous policy is nicknamed “wet foot/dry foot.”

Still, “the [US] administration’s recent announcement regarding Cuba does not affect immigration policies including wet foot/dry foot or the Cuban Adjustment Act — which only Congress can change,” Korn said.

“There is no change to immigration law. This rumor is just putting people in harm’s way. The rumors are just not true,” said Lieutenant Commander Gabe Somma, a spokesman for the US Coast Guard 7th District.

US authorities aim to prevent any mass exodus, particularly since Cuba is in a period of extreme economic difficulty. Last year, the number of illegal Cuban migrants arriving by sea rose 75 percent to 3,722 from 2,129 a year earlier.