Tensions rise as influx of Cubans nearly doubles


MIAMI -- The number of Cubans intercepted at sea while trying to reach the United States is at its highest level since tens of thousands took to the Florida Straits on makeshift rafts and in small boats in the 1994 exodus sanctioned by President Fidel Castro.

The sharp rise and an increase in clashes between would-be immigrants and the Coast Guard are inflaming tensions over a policy enacted in response to the 1994 migration that allows Cubans without visas to stay if they reach American soil but turns back those caught at sea.

The "wet foot, dry foot" policy, which does not apply to any other immigrant group, is being blamed by critics for at least 39 deaths this year in the Florida Straits and is testing the resolve of the Coast Guard, which the critics say has become too aggressive in enforcing the restrictions.

In offering a permanent escape to Cubans who make it here, they say, the policy encourages them to risk their lives.

Coast Guard data show that as of Friday, 2,683 Cubans had been intercepted at sea this year, nearly double the amount for all of 2004.

And while the high season for migrant crossings, when the sailing tends to be smoothest, is already past, scores have kept trying the journey despite the perils.

Some of the migrants, hoping to avoid confrontations with Coast Guard patrols, are taking unusual routes, to the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Gulf Coast of Florida.

A fast-growing number - including 6,744 counted by Customs and Border Patrol in the fiscal year that ended in September - are entering the United States by slipping across the Mexican border, often after sailing some 500 miles to Honduras from Cuba.

The State Department says the influx of migrants is a result of increasingly repressive policies in Cuba, the island's crumbling economy and Castro's refusal to let more Cubans sign up for a lottery under which the United States is supposed to grant 20,000 visas a year.

But some Cuban-Americans in South Florida say that new limits on their visits and on the money they can send to relatives on the island, imposed by the Bush administration last year, have led to greater desperation among many Cubans.

Ever more aggressive smuggling has also played a role. Far more Cubans are making it to American shores, including, for example, 14 migrants discovered near a parking lot on Marco Island, Fla., a few days after Thanksgiving.

"The message to Cuban families is that if you don't want to wait in line, your relatives in Miami can pay $8,000 and you've got a good chance to make it here," said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute, a research group in Washington.

"It really is a glaring exception in the whole homeland security policy."

One incident this fall perhaps best encapsulated the growing resolve of Cubans to slip into this country and of the federal government to keep them out.

Florida television audiences watched as government agents struggled to keep 10 migrants in a homemade metal vessel from reaching the beach just north of Miami after a Customs and Border Protection boat bumped it hard enough to spill some of the migrants overboard.

Coast Guard boats had also sprayed the vessel with a hose and tried stalling its engine with a rope during a prolonged showdown with the migrants, all men.

"We are needlessly putting innocent lives at risk," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which helps Cuban and other migrants pursue asylum claims.

"Our Coast Guard is being put in the untenable position of endangering lives in order to keep people from reaching our shores."

Luis Diaz, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Miami, said that the agency's tactics had not become more aggressive but that unlike in the past, it was working closely with agencies like Customs and Border Protection since becoming part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002.

"We are working better and smarter with our partners," Diaz said.

"Before we were in Homeland Security, we had different radios, different frequencies, and now we are working together behind the same equipment."

The number of Cubans being intercepted is by far the highest since 1994, when 37,000 took to the Florida Straits after Castro announced that his government would no longer stop boats or rafts leaving the island.

It was a hostile move against the United States and a way for Castro to divert attention from his domestic problems and quell an uprising against him on the island, similar to when he let 125,000 Cubans leave in the Mariel boatlift of 1980.

The 1994 exodus led the United States and Cuba to agree on the "wet foot, dry foot" policy in 1995, ending this country's longtime practice of admitting all Cuban migrants as refugees.

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