The call from Cuba ended with a sense of dread for Yandry Pérez.
His aunt warned him through the interrupted telephone call from Villa Clara, in central Cuba, that the whereabouts of his mother and two younger brothers had been unknown for two days. Some 50 Cubans fled the island last weekend aboard speedboats to Florida, even though they knew they would no longer receive preferential treatment upon arrival in the United States.
On Friday, the Coast Guard announced the repatriation of the 27 Cubans intercepted near Key Largo.
“We discourage anyone from taking to the sea and attempting to reach U.S. soil illegally — they are risking their lives with very little chance of success,” said Capt. Aldante Vinciguerra, chief of response for the Coast Guard 7th District. “The Coast Guard and our partner agencies continue to maintain a strong presence in the Southeast and are ready to stop those who take the illegal, ill advised and unsafe journey across the Florida Straits.”
The weekend trip from the island had been organized in absolute secrecy.
“For days, we have been waiting for news, succumbed to total uncertainty,” said Pérez, who two years ago crossed seven international borders to take advantage of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which was repealed by former President Barack Obama in the last days of his administration.
“When we saw in the news that they had caught two boats with Cubans we breathed a sigh of relief,” he said.
His mother, Marlenes Romero León, 47, along with his brothers Yusdiel and Kevin, 20 and 11, respectively, boarded the speedboat as a last resort to reunite with the rest of the family that was already in Florida. A process of reunification that had begun a few years earlier was frustrated when Romero was denied a visa to travel to the United States to reunite with the father of her children.
“On television I was able to see one of my brothers, so I know they are being detained,” said Pérez, who is desperately trying to find out where his relatives are so he can hire a lawyer to handle the case.
“We believe they can apply for political asylum. On more than one occasion they arrested my mother. They would not even allow her to go to the beach so she could not try to escape from Cuba, he said. “My brother is a child, they should at least let us take care of him.”
On Sunday, a 40-foot speedboat was intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It had more than 30 migrants aboard, five of whom ran into the mangroves in an attempt to escape authorities but were later caught.
A few hours earlier, a small boat with seven Cubans aboard was intercepted at Blackpoint Park and Marina, south of Miami-Dade. A third boat with 21 migrants was intercepted near Key Largo.
A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the agency could not provide any information about the case or those involved because it is part of an open investigation.
Authorities are investigating the boatmen who transported the Cubans from the island. If they prove to be human traffickers they could face severe penalties.
The Coast Guard 7th District estimates 1,951 Cubans have attempted to illegally migrate to the U.S. via the maritime environment since Oct. 1 compared to 7,411 Cubans in fiscal year 2016. These numbers represent the total number of at-sea interdictions, landings and disruptions in the Florida Straits, the Caribbean and Atlantic.
Family members in Florida said they did not know whether their relatives had paid for the weekend trip, but it is known that similar trips on speedboats can cost thousands of dollars, even before the end of wet foot, dry foot, which allowed most Cubans who made it onto U.S. soil to stay.
Since news broke of the Cuban migrants’ arrival, Julio Infante, who lives in Miami, has not stopped looking for the whereabouts of his father-in-law, who allegedly traveled on one of those boats.
“I've been to several places but they always tell me that they cannot give information. We are desperate because we do not even know if he is alive,” Infante said.
The missing relative is Wilber Hechavarría, 46, who left his home in Las Tunas in eastern Cuba. Family members on the island called his daughter, Yoandra, in Miami, so she could keep an eye on the news.
“He wanted to be with her and leave Cuba. He always wanted to leave that country because over there, people have to steal in order to eat,” said Infante.
“My wife came from Guatemala a year ago crossing international borders. She arrived pregnant. We already have a family and we wanted her father to be with us, too,” he said.
Although the migrants knew about the end of wet foot, dry foot, they ventured across the Florida Straits with the belief that they would find some way to legalize their situation later in the U.S.
For Infante, it does not matter that the policy that facilitated the entry of Cubans to the United States is over.
“In the end, we would find a way to legalize his status or he would remain undocumented,” he said. “Either way, that would be better than staying in Cuba.”
Immigration attorney Wilfredo Allen said that Cubans who arrive on U.S. territory and do not surrender to immigration authorities not only will not have the right to avail themselves of the Cuban Adjustment Act a year and a day after arrival, but they also cannot obtain legal status even if they marry U.S. citizens.
“When a rafter or any undocumented Cuban arrives in the United States, he is obliged to appear before the authorities for processing. The migrant can apply for political asylum if he is persecuted and fears to return to Cuba,” Allen said.
If the case for migrants seeking asylum is deemed credible, they have the right to request asylum before a judge and, if granted, they could then adjust their status through the Cuban Adjustment Act, Allen said.
“If the migrant who entered the United States illegally does not present himself to the authorities, he remains undocumented and it is very difficult for him to legalize his status later,” he said. “He is subject to immediate deportation.”
Follow Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba