Saturday, December 31, 2005

Migration to U.S. soared in '05

Posted on Fri, Dec. 30, 2005
Migration to U.S. soared in '05
The number of migrants heading to the United States from Cuba and the Dominican Republic was unusually high in 2005. Experts say both the economy and political policies fueled the upsurge.

The constant blackouts, the dismal economy, the messages of false hope from Fidel Castro. It was all too much for Estrella Fresnillo, a well-known Cuban journalist.
Fresnillo left Cuba behind this year to come to the United States, joining a growing wave of immigrants from across the Caribbean taking to the seas -- or sneaking through U.S. land borders -- in search of a new life.
This year, the Coast Guard interdicted almost twice as many Cubans at sea than last year -- more than any year since 1994, when a rafter crisis of 37,000 prompted the United States and Cuba to strike up a rare dialogue to implement a controversial new immigration policy.
The Coast Guard also intercepted almost four times as many Dominicans at sea but caught fewer Haitians trying to reach Florida this year than in 2004. Interdictions of Haitians last year set a record for the past 10 years.
Although Fresnillo did not enter by sea, she is part of another fast-growing group of Cuban migrants who entered the United States illegally by land. Fresnillo crossed from Canada to Buffalo, N.Y., in September.
As many as 7,610 Cubans entered the United States through its southern border in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The Coast Guard interdicted 2,866 Cubans at sea in 2005, up from 1,499 in 2004. Many more also made it to shore in South Florida than last year. Border Patrol spokesman Steve McDonald said 2,530 Cubans were detained in South Florida in 2005, up from 955 the year before.
''The situation in Cuba is worse than ever,'' Fresnillo said. ``I've never seen so many blackouts, and the hurricanes coming through were horrible. I am part of a generation of people that is disillusioned.''
The U.S. State Department said several factors have contributed to the uptick in migrants. Aside from widespread blackouts, the Cuban government is taking a much bigger bite -- up to 18 percent -- of every dollar sent by relatives. And new U.S. rules imposed in 2004 restrict the amount of remittances U.S. relatives can legally send to their families to $100 a month.
''The crackdown on dissidents is also a major factor,'' said a State Department official who asked not to be named. ``This year, the Cubans were promised more than in the past, especially with [Fidel Castro] saying they are coming out of their special period. But the average Cuban looks around and realizes it's just not getting any better.''
U.S.-Cuba immigration policy took center stage this year after several high-profile incidents involving clashes between the Coast Guard and Cuban migrants at sea. In one incident, a go-fast boat smuggling Cubans capsized following a chase by a Coast Guard vessel, and a 6-year-old boy drowned.
''From what we've seen and heard here, the latest trend in migrant smuggling from Cuba is the go-fast boat,'' said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil. ``For those that go the route of migrant smuggling, they leave themselves at the mercy of smugglers who don't have an interest in their safety. They are interested in the cash.''
After the 1994 crisis, the United States implemented the controversial ''wet-foot, dry-foot'' policy, which generally allows Cubans who make it to U.S. shores to stay in the country but mostly guarantees repatriation to Cuba for those interdicted at sea.
In a report earlier this year, the State Department accused Cuba's government of refusing to comply with the 1995 migration accords, which were designed to prevent another exodus. The report said Cuba's government doesn't try to stop migrants on vessels while they are still in Cuban territorial waters, and it refuses to issue exit permits to many citizens who receive U.S. travel documents allowed by the accords.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart said the 1995 accords should be ``abrogated. It's fundamentally flawed and immoral. . . . I would eliminate the migration accords. But I haven't been able to convince President Bush of that.''
Cubans aren't the only ones taking to the seas in a growing tide. The number of Dominicans interdicted by the Coast Guard has grown more than fivefold from about 801 in 2002 to 4,388 in 2005.
Eduardo Sanchez, a representative of President Leonel Fernandez's Dominican Liberation Party, blamed, in part, a global economy for the exodus. He also said the higher number could mean the Coast Guard has stepped up its efforts to intercept Dominicans -- most of them heading for Puerto Rico.
''Although the economy is growing, the distribution of that wealth is much slower,'' Sanchez said. ``The poorer people, who risk themselves to come to the U.S., always have an incentive.''
Despite the turmoil in Haiti, the number of Haitian migrants interdicted by the Coast Guard in 2005 -- 1,828 -- is less than last year's 3,078. Most of them are taken back to Haiti.
Activists in Miami's Haitian community warn that the lower number should not be interpreted to mean that conditions in Haiti are improving.
''Things have never been worse than they are now in Haiti -- the violence, the misery, the poverty. It has been called a failed state,'' said Steven Forester, policy advocate for Haitian Women of Miami. ``It is simply wrong that anybody should be returned to Haiti at this point.''
Conditions also seem to be getting worse in Cuba, according to Cubans who left this year.
''Popular rebellion and discontent have increased in the last two years, and at the same time government repression is increasing,'' said dissident Manuel Vasquez Portal, who left Cuba with a visa in June. ``Life for us in Cuba had become impossible.''

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