More than 100 Cuban migrants have landed in the Keys in less than two weeks, keeping federal agents and local police busy processing the new arrivals.
But U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection crews on the water have been just as busy or busier stopping migrants from reaching the shore. Between Thursday and Friday last week, Coast Guard crews stationed in Key West stopped 92 migrants sailing on multiple makeshift vessels from making it to land in South Florida.
“It keeps us busy 24-7,” said Capt. Jeffrey Janszen, commander of Coast Guard Sector Key West. “It’s a constant battle.”
In the Upper Keys, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations patrols stopped two vessels carrying a total of 31 migrants last week.
Over the past two years, there has been a marked increase in Cubans trying to flee the island nation 90 miles south of Key West. The federal government measures migration numbers in 12-month fiscal years beginning Oct. 1. Janszen estimates a 60 percent jump in Cubans trying to reach the United States by sea from FY 2015 to FY 2016 — 7,411 people compared to 4,473. The trend for FY 2017 is looking similar.
“We’re still on pace to match that,” Janszen said.
Typically, seafaring migrants try making the trek during the summer when the treacherous Florida Straits water lies down. Janszen said he’s surprised to see such high numbers in December.
“They’re still coming here every day during the winter months,” he said.
Janszen’s crews have a 5,500-square mile area of responsibility to patrol. Despite the jump in landings, he said his men and women manage to stop at least 80 percent of the migrants heading to South Florida.
“We constantly adjust our aircraft and surface vessels to increase interdictions,” Janszen said. “We’re doing a pretty good job of at least stemming the flow.”
For the past two years, officials have been pointing to better diplomatic relations between the Obama administration and the Castro regime as a key reason for the increase in Cuba-to-U.S. migration. Because of the Cold-War-era Cuban Adjustment Act, most Cubans who reach the states can stay and apply for permanent residency after a year. Under the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot changes made to the law in the mid-1990s, those caught at sea are returned, but those setting foot on dry land are safe.
But the policy is designed to treat those leaving as refugees since Cuba is considered a hostile country. With thawing relations, many don’t see the point in continuing wet-foot, dry-foot, and Cubans are leaving in larger numbers fearing the policy will soon change.
And some Cuba experts say any hope the Castro government would become less oppressive to its people because of Washington’s softening stance toward the island nation has not come to pass. It may have even gotten worse.
“The primary reason pushing Cubans to flee the island is the repressive nature of the regime. That has not changed, and Cubans have lost hope that Obama’s rapprochement would induce any improvements — it actually made it all worse,” said Sebastian A. Arcos, associate director of Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute. “Facing an obdurate regime, and the prospects of major changes in U.S. immigration laws, the reaction is to flee before the door shuts close.”
President-elect Donald Trump’s tough talk on immigration during his campaign isn’t helping either, Arcos said.
“This is the reaction to Donald Trump getting elected,” said Arcos. “Restricting immigration was one of his campaign’s main topics.”
Trump also criticized Obama for reaching out to the Castro regime and has signaled he’d reverse many of the president’s policy shifts when it comes to Cuba.
“On top of that, he came out against Obama’s policy of engagement. His choice of several Cuban-Americans appointed to his transition team indicates he is going to take a much harder line than Obama, and the consensus among Cuban-American elected representatives, and the older, hardline Cuban-Americans who keep re-electing them, is that the Cuban Adjustment Act should be either modified, or eliminated,” Arcos said.
Many migrants are taken to the U.S. by human smugglers who charge family members here thousands of dollars to ferry their relatives to freedom. But many others make the journey on homemade, rustic vessels built “from any material they can find in Cuba,” Janszen said. “There are dozens lost at sea.”
“Those who make it are extremely lucky,” said Janszen. “All migration interdiction is a safety of life at sea issue for the Coast Guard.”
While acknowledging a hectic few weeks on the water and in the mangroves processing recent arrivals, some in law enforcement are reluctant to say South Florida is witnessing anything out of the ordinary in terms of a Cuban migration spike.
“We had a busy weekend. I would not say yet though that we are trending upward,” said Agent Todd Bryant, division chief of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Sector Miami. “Sea state and other factors play a heavy role in the ebb and flow maritime smuggling events.”
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204