RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's go now to the Florida Keys, just 90 tantalizing miles from Cuba. Law enforcement authorities are confronting a surge of Cuban migrants trying to make the dangerous journey by boat across the Florida Straits, the highest numbers they've seen in two decades. The Cubans know that if they manage to reach American soil, they'll be allowed to stay legally in the U.S.
But now that the U.S. and Cuba are normalizing relations, the Cubans fear their special immigration status will end soon. And that fear is fueling an ever more desperate migrant tide, as NPR's Melissa Block discovered on a trip to the Florida Keys. And she joins us with that story.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Melissa, this special immigration status that I just mentioned, that is a policy unique to Cubans?
BLOCK: That's right. It's known as the wet-foot, dry-foot policy. And here's how it works. If you are a Cuban migrant, you're trying to get to Florida and the U.S. intercepts you at sea, you have wet feet. You're considered illegal. You're sent back home. But if you make it, if you step foot on U.S. soil, you have dry feet. You can legally stay and you're put on a fast track towards citizenship. And, yes, Cuba is the only country that enjoys that special status.
MONTAGNE: And that's because this policy dates back to the Cold War?
BLOCK: Right, back to the 1960s. It's a policy that was designed to protect Cubans who were fleeing political persecution under the communist Castro regime. But now the Cubans who are leaving are mostly economic migrants. They're seeking better opportunity here. And a lot of people say, look, the policy simply makes no sense anymore.
So what U.S. law enforcement is seeing with rumors that the policy might change is this huge surge of migrants. The number of Cubans trying to make the crossing to Florida has nearly doubled over the past year. And they're steering their way to American shores on makeshift boats and rafts. Some just have sails and paddles. Others, if they're lucky, have managed to salvage an old car engine and mounted it in the middle of the boat.
GLENN SIMPSON: So in front of us is a small wooden vessel...
BLOCK: Otherwise known as a chug. This one - painted bright blue - landed on a remote island in Dry Tortugas National Park in the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles from Key West.
SIMPSON: Came to us about 10 days ago...
BLOCK: With 12 Cubans onboard, Park manager Glenn Simpson tells me. The chug reeks of fuel. The engine flooded and drenched the migrants. And this boat is far more seaworthy than some.
SIMPSON: Sometimes you'll see just a rebar steel frame with spray foam used to create a flotation device. Makes you think about what the crossing is like and what the people who come have gone through to get here.
BLOCK: In fact, the week I visit, a crowded Cuban vessel has recently capsized off the Florida Keys. Three migrants made it to shore. Four others were found dead. Sixteen more are missing and presumed drowned.
JOHN APOLLONY: All right. Hats secure. Everything secure. Good?
BLOCK: For a view from the water, I head out on a fast boat from Key West with John Apollony. He's a marine interdiction agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
APOLLONY: Coming up.
BLOCK: It's up to agents like John Apollony to keep the Cubans out.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE)
BLOCK: We ride through gorgeous turquoise waters and stop by an uninhabited island.
APOLLONY: This is the Marquesas Keys.
BLOCK: And because it's remote, this is a hotspot for Cuban migrant landings.
APOLLONY: One, two, three.
BLOCK: Apollony scans the beach through binoculars, counting the abandoned Cuban chugs that line the shore.
APOLLONY: Eight, nine.
BLOCK: Wait a second, you just counted nine Cuban chugs on this one beach here?
APOLLONY: Yeah. I see at least nine.
BLOCK: What's driving the spike in numbers? Dire economic conditions in Cuba, for one, but also real fear that the wet-foot, dry-foot immigration policy will end with the warming of U.S.-Cuba relations. Those coming now figure this might be their last best chance to get in before the door slams shut. And John Apollony says that means the migrants are more emboldened than ever.
APOLLONY: They're going to do everything to get their vessel to shore. Sometimes they'll have homemade weapons onboard - machetes, jagged oars. And they will, you know, swing them at you or threaten you to try to keep you away from them.
BLOCK: Border Patrol works in tandem with the U.S. Coast Guard.
JEFF JANSZEN: My name is Capt. Jeff Janszen. I'm the commander of Sector Coast Guard Key West. We're here in Key West, Fla.
BLOCK: Janszen figures patrolling for Cuban migrants takes up 80 percent of his sector's time and assets. Administration officials I've contacted have been tight-lipped about any potential changes to U.S. migration policy with Cuba. But if wet-foot, dry-foot were to end, according to Captain Jansen there is a plan to handle an eventual Cuban exodus.
JANSZEN: We'd probably need Department of Defense assets, Navy assets. We'd probably open up camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which we had to do actually in the '90s. So there is a plan in place to deal with a mass migration if it comes to that.
BLOCK: Janszen says the Cubans are so desperate, his crews have been seeing the unthinkable.
JANSZEN: You just can't make this stuff up. It's just - it's amazing to me what they'll do.
BLOCK: Some migrants will wound themselves in hopes they'll be medevaced to the U.S. and allowed to stay.
JANSZEN: They've cut themselves, they've shot themselves. We've seen them drink bleach. We've seen them drink gasoline.
KATE WEBB: Sometimes what they'll do is they'll take little nuts and bolts off the ship and occasionally they'll try to eat those, swallow them.
BLOCK: That's Lt. Kate Webb. These crews rescue many Cubans who are in real trouble - exhausted, hypothermic, dehydrated. They feed them, give them medical care and most often send them right back to Cuba. Webb got used to seeing the same faces over and over again, repeaters she calls them. She remembers one man in particular.
WEBB: Yeah. He - we dropped him off in Cabanas and he said, I'll see you in two weeks. I remember him very well (laughter).
BLOCK: And, Renee, Lt. Webb told me that she's sure that that man was going to turn right around and try to make the crossing one more time.
BLOCK: And, Melissa, when you were in Florida, you did meet with one of these repeaters?
BLOCK: That's right. His name is Yojany Pachecho, 33 years old. He finally made it to Florida on his sixth attempt. Six times, Renee, it gives you a sense of his determination to get here. He told me that this past April, he almost had made it. He was just a few miles from Key Largo.
YOJANY PACHECHO: (Foreign language spoken).
BLOCK: So you could see the yachts, the boats, the cars, everything, you could see them?
PACHECHO: (Foreign language spoken).
BLOCK: But he was caught, sent back to Cuba. And he told us, I built another boat and now here I am.
MONTAGNE: Melissa, thanks very much.
BLOCK: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Melissa Block.
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