Surge Of Cuban Migrants Arrive On U.S. Shores Cubans who recently made the dangerous migration to Florida by boat talk about what drove them to leave their homeland, about leaving their families behind, and what awaits them here in the U.S.
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Surge Of Cuban Migrants Arrive On U.S. Shores

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Surge Of Cuban Migrants Arrive On U.S. Shores

Surge Of Cuban Migrants Arrive On U.S. Shores

Surge Of Cuban Migrants Arrive On U.S. Shores

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/499199313/499199314" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Cubans who recently made the dangerous migration to Florida by boat talk about what drove them to leave their homeland, about leaving their families behind, and what awaits them here in the U.S.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We hear quite a bit about migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. Not so much about a migrant surge to our shores, Cuban migrants trying to sail on rickety makeshift boats to Florida. As the U.S. and Cuba move to normalize relations, the number of people trying to leave Cuba has soared. It's nearly double the number from last year. These Cubans fear their current special immigration status will end. And that has created a new sense of urgency. NPR's Melissa Block went to Florida and talked with some recent Cuban arrivals.

YOJANY PACHECO: (Foreign language spoken).

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: At a Quality Inn outside Miami, new immigrant Yojany Pacheco pulls out his smartphone and proudly shows me some videos he shot on their voyage north.

So this is the video of you all in the boat leaving Cuba?

PACHECO: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: When you're leaving Cuba. Big thumbs up?

PACHECO: Si.

BLOCK: We see 14 Cubans packed into a small wooden boat - 13 men, one woman. They're wearing ball caps and grinning big as they chug away from their homeland. The sun is rising behind them. But let's back up. First, they had to build the boat in secret in the forest. They pooled their money - the equivalent of several hundred dollars apiece - got boards and an old car engine. After a week of hand labor, the boat was ready to sail. Yojany Pacheco pulls up Google Maps...

PACHECO: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: ...And shows me the route they followed.

PACHECO: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: So from that red dot in Cuba to that star along the Florida Keys, that's where you landed, where that star is?

PACHECO: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: A trip of about 200 nautical miles. It took them three days. Pacheco says he was driven to leave Cuba because he couldn't make a living and was being harassed by the government. He had tried and failed to make the crossing five times before.

PACHECO: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: When you touched U.S. land, what was the first thing you did?

PACHECO: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: "Right there and then, my eyes filled with tears," Pacheco tells me. "I looked around and everybody was crying. We hugged each other. Our dream came true."

PACHECO: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: Under the current wet-foot, dry-foot policy, Cubans who are intercepted at sea are sent back. But if they reach U.S. soil, they have special status. They can stay, get benefits and they're put on a fast track towards citizenship. The policy dates back to the Cold War. It was meant to help dissidents and political refugees escape Cuba. But now most migrants are leaving Cuba for economic, not political reasons. And critics of the policy say this special status no longer makes sense. They note that many Cubans travel back and forth to Cuba once they become permanent legal U.S. residents, clearly not fearing persecution.

As things stand now, when the Cuban migrants arrive in Florida, two church groups take them in. They're fed, given new clothes and put up in motels. They're granted work permits. And if they don't have family in Florida, they're sent on to live in cities around the country with programs in place to help them find work. Yojany Pacheco has a job lined up in a restaurant in Albuquerque. Another recent arrival, Arnalbis Rogel, says he'll take any work he can get. When we meet, he's about to be sent on to Houston.

ARNALBIS ROGEL: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: He left three kids back in Havana.

ROGEL: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: Oh, who's this? You just gave me a photograph of a beautiful young boy.

ROGEL: Dairon.

BLOCK: This is your son. His name's Dairon. And he's how old?

ROGEL: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: He's 10 years old. And he's back home in Cuba?

ROGEL: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: You must miss him a lot.

ROGEL: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: You're tapping your heart. "This is the only way I'll give them a better life," he tells me. Rogel worked as a baker and candy maker in Cuba, was unemployed for five months until finally he decided to leave. He spent 25 nervous hours at sea.

ROGEL: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: "The sea has an ugly face," Rogel recalls. And he vows that no one else in his family will make that journey. His group of rafters call themselves the Vikings. Modesto Morales was the navigator. He's a 58-year-old truck driver from Havana. And now he's also heading for Houston. "It doesn't matter where I go," he says, "because anywhere, anywhere will be better than Cuba."

MODESTO MORALES: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: Morales says even with the thawing of relations between the two countries and President Obama's trip to Cuba earlier this year, for regular people it means nothing.

MORALES: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: "Nothing has changed," he says. "For us, it's all the same. No transportation, no jobs, very low salaries."

MORALES: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: "Lots of talk," Morales says, "but no change." And he adds, "in Cuba, you can't say anything. Everything you say is a crime. Here in the U.S., this is all a new life."

MORALES: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: Morales and Rogel agree, they decided to get out of Cuba now while they still had the chance. Many Cubans fear the wet-foot, dry-foot policy that grants them special immigration status will soon come to an end as relations thaw.

MORALES: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: "If wet-foot, dry-foot ends," Morales warns, "we Cubans, we are lost." And his boat mate Arnalbis Rogel adds a political footnote.

ROGEL: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: He says, "I told the guys we have to build the boat in record time because elections are coming. We don't know who's going to become president of the U.S. And we don't know what changes will come." These recent arrivals face an uncertain future in an unfamiliar land. But they seem to have no regrets.

ROGEL: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: "We are like new born children," Arnalbis Rogel tells me. "You start out crawling, then baby steps, then you walk. And then - maybe - you run." Melissa Block, NPR News, Miami.

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