Cubans Reach United States Via Mexico

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In the past year, more Cubans have been avoiding stepped-up Coast Guard patrols in the Florida Straits and reaching the United States illegally through Mexico. U.S. policy allows most Cubans who reach American soil to stay, unlike illegal immigrants from many other nations.


Another big challenge in 2008 may be immigration and a lot of immigrants to the U.S. will come from Cuba. Since Fidel Castro handed power to his brother last year, more Cubans have been migrating to the U.S., and the Coast Guard has stepped-up its patrols off the Florida Straits. But law enforcement is scrabbling to address another route.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports that a majority of Cubans now reach U.S. soil by going through Mexico.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: The well-known image of people fleeing Cuba is the makeshift raft bobbing off Florida's coast - its occupants hanging on desperately amid ruckus wave. Damien Fernandez of Florida International University says the new route is a lot less risky.

Professor DAMIEN FERNANDEZ (International Relations, Florida International University): You don't have to confront the U.S. Coast Guard. You don't have to swim to shore. You don't have to defy sharks. It's just a matter of getting on a plane, getting to Mexico and crossing the border.

LUDDEN: Fernandez says Cubans arranged letters of invitation to visit aid groups or churches or family members in Mexico. That gets them permission to leave Cuba. Then, unlike Mexicans or Central Americans, Cubans don't have to sneak across the southwest border. Under the U.S. policy known as wet-foot, dry-foot, Cubans intercepted at sea are generally turned back, but those who reached U.S. soil are usually allowed to stay.

Prof. FERNANDEZ: In some cases, Cubans in Mexico just walk to the U.S. immigration authorities and say I'm Cuban and I want to stay in the United States.

LUDDEN: That doesn't mean travel by boat has ended. Some Cubans who perhaps can't get permission to leave are smuggled in high-speed boats west across the Yucatan Channel into Mexico, and in some cases, traffickers do bring them all the way into the U.S.

Commander Bob Watts heads drug and migrant interdiction for the U.S. Coast Guard. He has traveled to Mexico City several times now for talks on how to combat this growing trafficking network.

Commander BOB WATTS (Chief, Drug and Migrant Interdiction, U.S. Coast Guard): These are not migrants on masks, these are migrants who are being smuggled by criminals. And when you bring in a criminal network of any kind, there's certain things go on with that. You know, there's bribery, there's corruption, there's potential murder, you never know.

LUDDEN: In fact, some gangland style killings around Cancun, Mexico have been linked to the trafficking of Cubans. Mexico's attorney general recently pointed a finger at Cuban Americans for financing the smuggling reportedly to the tune of $10,000 a head. It's something Miami activist Ramon Saul Sanchez, who runs the Democracy Movement, doesn't deny.

Mr. RAMON SAUL SANCHEZ (President, Democracy Movement): It is something that we disagree with and something that we as activists discourage. But at the end of the day, it has to do with the love that the human being has for their relatives, and that is very, very hard to stop.

LUDDEN: Cuba analyst Damien Fernandez says the new trend threatens to undermine a decade-old deal to carefully manage Cuban migration. The U.S. is supposed to issue 20,000 visas a year and to (unintelligible) is supposed to let the recipients go. But now and then each side blames the other for not upholding the agreement. And this year the U.S. has fallen behind in its visa quota.

Activist Ramon Saul Sanchez believes Mexico maybe under political pressure to crack down on these new smuggling routes. He says officials recently stepped up their detention of Cubans and 3 to 400 are now being held in Mexico.

Mr. SANCHEZ: Supposedly, they shouldn't hold people more than 90 days but there are people there being held for six months, eight months up to a year.

LUDDEN: Sanchez say a handful of Cuban detainees recently staged a two-week hunger strike demanding that Mexico release them and let them continue their journey to the U.S.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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