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A top State Department official will tell to Havana later this month for talks on normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba. One of the main topics will be migration. Since President Obama's dual-announcement with Cuban President Raul Castro last month, there's been a spike in the number of Cubans leaving the country on rafts and boats. NPR's Greg Allen reports on what the Coast Guard has been seeing in Florida.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Rear Admiral Jake Korn is commander of the 7th Coast Guard District in Miami. He says in December, 481 Cubans attempted to reach the U.S. on rafts and boats. That's double the amount seen in December of last year.
REAR ADMIRAL JAKE KORN: It's a pretty uptick. And most of that has occurred since the 17, since the president and Raul Castro's announcement.
ALLEN: Korn says the surge in rafters wasn't unexpected. Any time there's a real or perceived shift in policy between the U.S. and Cuba, he says people take to the seas. The latest wave of migrants, Korn says, are attempting the journey in makeshift vessels.
KORN: Literally taped together Styrofoam pieces or pieces of wood. It's essentially flotsam, and there's lots of people in some of these vessels. Sometimes they'll have a makeshift mast and a sail. And we've had some deaths this year, and we know that not all these people make it.
ALLEN: It's just a short trip of just a hundred miles or more but, on a raft, it can take several days or weeks. In Miami, Ramon Saul Sanchez often knows about Cuban rafters before the Coast Guard.
RAMON SAUL SANCHEZ: I get calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, many times mothers are crying on the phone saying my son, my daughter left Cuba. I don't know how. I don't know when.
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ALLEN: Sanchez hosts a nightly radio program in Miami and heads an anti-Castro group, the Democracy Movement. He says the sudden upsurge in rafters is because of a rumor that's sweeping Cuba.
SANCHEZ: That on the 15 of January there will be this new change in immigration laws here that will affect the Cuban Adjustment Act. So that deadline has prompted people to leave Cuba in whatever ways they can.
ALLEN: It's a rumor that's unfounded. The Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans who arrive here to remain in the U.S. as permanent residents. It's a law that can only be changed by Congress, and no congressional action is imminent. The Coast Guard sent out a release this week stating that fact, hoping to get the message to Cubans that, despite the president's announcement, immigration policies remain unchanged. Even with the upsurge, the Coast Guard intercepts the vast majority of Cuban rafters, over 80 percent, according to Tim Cronin, deputy chief of law enforcement for the Coast Guard in Miami. It's a dangerous journey, with a low chance for success, but one, Cronin says, some Cubans make time and time again.
TIM CRONIN: It's not uncommon for a Coast Guard cutter to embark somebody that they've seen before. And it's not uncommon for the migrants to indicate that this is their fifth or sixth time and they're going to try again.
ALLEN: With talks on normalizing relations set to begin between the U.S. and Cuba, Coast Guard officials say they're on alert for more rumors and anything that could lead to an exodus of rafters from the island. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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