The number of undocumented Cubans who have been intercepted at sea or reached the United States this year has increased significantly. With 3 ½ months left in the fiscal year, the number has already surpassed the previous one-year period, according to U.S. government figures.
From Oct. 1, 2011, until last week, 8,240 undocumented Cubans had been interdicted at sea or arrived at U.S. borders or airports, compared to 7,988 in all of fiscal 2011, which ran from Oct. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2011.
Fiscal 2012 will wind up being the second in a row to have record growth in arrivals and interdictions. The number for fiscal 2010 was 7,050, compared to 8,113 for fiscal 2009.
The numbers include Cubans who were interdicted at sea or arrived by boat to U.S. shores as well as those who arrived at U.S. points of entry such as land borders and airports — the overwhelming majority of them coming across the border with Mexico.
El Nuevo Herald obtained the data from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection. The agencies use the U.S. government fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 of the following year.
The categories showing the largest increases were arrivals at borders and interdictions at sea, the majority of them in the Florida Straits.
A total of 6,434 undocumented Cubans arrived at U.S. borders in the past nine months, 1,118 more than the 5,316 who arrived in all of 2011. The Coast Guard reported 931 interceptions at sea in the last nine months alone, compared to 985 in all of 2011.
Under the wet foot/dry foot policy, Cubans who set foot on U.S. territory are allowed to remain, while those who are intercepted at sea generally are returned to Cuba unless they can show a “well-grounded fear of persecution.”
Besides the undocumented arrivals, another 20,000 Cubans leave for the United States each year under an agreement between the Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton governments negotiated after the 1994 rafter crisis in an attempt to stem risky escapes aboard makeshift boats.
The increase from 2011 to 2012 pushed the overall figure to its highest level since 2008, when 16,260 undocumented Cubans arrived on U.S. territory or were intercepted at sea. The next year it plunged to 8,113.
At the time, the drop was generally attributed to the U.S. economic crisis, with analysts saying that Cuban families in South Florida no longer could afford the high prices charge by the people smugglers who were running go-fast boats between the two shores.
But today there’s little agreement on why the flow of undocumented Cubans is again on the rise.
Two migrants who arrived by boat late last month said a growing number of people want to leave the island because the economic and political situation is constantly deteriorating.
“The Cuban situation gets worse every 24 hours,” said Leonardo Padilla Alfonso, 60.
Ramón Saúl Sánchez, president of the Democracy Movement, said that disillusionment with the economic reforms promised by Cuban ruler Raúl Castro, who succeeded his ailing brother Fidel Castro in 2008, could be a factor in the increased flow.
“There was speculation after 2008 that the reduction in the number of Cubans (leaving) was due also to the belief that many people on the island had hopes for change. But since those changes did not happen, then maybe that propelled many to leave,” said Sanchez, who monitors the migration flows.
“The optimism that existed over the possible reforms has vanished,” said Jorge Núñez, 51, who arrived with Padilla.
For Coast Guard Capt. Brendan McPherson, chief of law enforcement for the Miami-based District 7, the number of interceptions at sea does not show a significant change when compared to those from five or six years ago. There were 703 in 2011, compared to 2,915 in 2008.
“The activity that we’re seeing now is a little bit of an increase, but our analysts tell us that is well within the norm,” McPherson said. “We’re not seeing anything that indicates there’s anything that is unusual.”
McPherson also attributed the recent increase in interceptions to the tougher laws and more efficient methods that the Coast Guard is using to crack down on people smuggling — including a law that makes it a federal crime to fail to obey a Coast Guard order to halt.
The vast majority of the vessels intercepted by the Coast Guard these days are rafts or “rustic” boats, McPherson said.
Núñez and Padilla, who landed in the Dry Tortugas west of Key West, said they built their own boat because the go-fast boats have all but disappeared from the Florida Straits in the past two years.