Fewer Cubans make crossing to Fla; economy cited
By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ
AP Hispanic Affairs Writer
MIAMI -- The number of Cubans attempting to cross the Florida Straits
has fallen by more than half, putting 2009 on track to be perhaps the
lowest for migration from the communist island in almost a decade.
Experts say it's hard to pinpoint what has caused such a drastic drop
but attribute it to combination of factors, with the U.S. economic
downturn topping the list. They also point to stepped up U.S. law
enforcement against smugglers, eased U.S. restrictions on
Cuban-Americans who want to travel to the island and send money to
family there and a clampdown by the Cuban government.
"To be honest, there's really no way of telling. This isn't a science,"
said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute
for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
The Miami area's unemployment rate may be one of the main reasons for
the drop - at 11.6 percent, it's nearly double from a year ago, making
it harder for Cuban-Americans to pay smugglers to help their families
leave the island.
"Most of the people who left were leaving through smuggling operations,
and that has stopped because the money here has dried up. The economic
crisis has affected that," Gomez said. At the same time, he said, on the
island "there's a wait and see attitude" as to how Cuban President Raul
Castro is going to handle the country's economic crisis.
From Oct. 1 through July 31, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted an
average of 72 Cubans a month, compared to 183 a month in the previous
fiscal year. The last time the numbers were that low was in 2002, the
year after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said there was also a huge drop since
last year in the number of Cubans who reached the U.S. by sea, falling
from nearly 4,000 annually to about 1,000.
And the number entering through Mexico has plunged, falling to about
5,000 between October and July, compared to almost 9,000 during the same
period a year earlier, Border Patrol said.
Under U.S. law known as the "Wet-foot, Dry-foot" policy, Cubans stopped
at sea are usually sent back home, but Cubans who reach U.S. soil are
generally allowed to stay. That makes them likely to contact the U.S.
government upon their arrival, unlike other illegal immigrants who hide
from law enforcement.
But there is no consensus on what is causing the drop. Coast Guard
spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Matt Moorlag cited the economy: there are fewer jobs
for would-be migrants and their Miami relatives. And smugglers often
charge up to $10,000 per person.
"If (the relatives) can't afford to pay the smugglers, there's going to
be fewer smuggling events," he said.
Moorlag and Victor Colon, a Border Patrol assistant chief patrol agent,
said authorities are also getting more aggressive about stopping
smugglers. Colon said boaters with suspicious vessels are more likely to
be questioned before they leave the Florida coast.
And if they are caught smuggling, they are more likely to be prosecuted.
Federal smuggling prosecutions in Miami increased from 35 in 2006 to 125
in 2008 and the government has sought harsher penalties for those convicted.
Jose Ponce, 39, who came to Miami from Havana 15 years ago by boat, says
he's sensed a change in how smuggling is perceived in Florida.
"Now, if they get you, it's like 'human trafficking,' and if someone
dies....it's a very big thing. Before, they didn't do anything. It was
just seen as something normal, a Cuban trying to help a Cuban" said
Ponce, a boat welder.
Ponce also said two of his friends were caught by the Cubans when they
went back to the island last year to bring their families to the U.S.
They are now serving sentences of 25 years in Cuban prisons, he said.
Under changes made last spring by President Barack Obama, it has also
become easier for Cubans in the U.S. to visit and send money to their
family back on the island, perhaps lessening their desperation to leave.
The years with the highest number of migrants in the last decade
coincide with the Bush administration's restrictions on family travel
and remittances to the island.
Leydi Tasse, who came from Cuba legally last year and now works at a
Tampa travel agency specializing in trips there, believes fewer Cubans
are attempting to cross illegally because it has become easier for their
U.S. relatives to petition for them.
"I think they're looking for more secure options," she said.
UM's Gomez believes some of the decrease can be attributed to what's
happening on the other side of the straits.
Raul Castro is clamping down on would-be migrants, he said, concerned
that any sign of social unrest would signal he has lost the control long
held by his older brother, former President Fidel Castro.
"The last thing Raul needs is another 'Maleconazo,'" Gomez said,
referring to the brief 1994 uprising at downtown Havana's Malecon, or
breakwater. Thousands took to the streets following a confrontation
between authorities and a group trying to flee the island by boat.
Ted Henken, an assistant professor of Hispanic Studies at Baruch College
in New York, who has studied Cuban migration, had a different take.
"If you're ambitious, young, hard working, you want to live in a
capitalist country," he said.
But the economic downturn may have left some would-be migrants hesitant
about life in the U.S. "If there's a crisis, it's better to live in a
socialist country because you have protection. That might be part of the
mathematics people are doing," he added.
Associated Press Writer Christine Armario contributed to this report
Fewer Cubans make crossing to Fla; economy cited - Nation AP -
MiamiHerald.com (27 August 2009)