Sharp regional increase in boat migrants
More than 75 Cuban migrants have passed through or landed in Cayman Brac within the past week as law enforcement officials around the Caribbean marked a sizeable increase in Cubans seeking to get to the U.S. using one route or another.
Cayman Islands law enforcement officials aren’t entirely sure, but said it seems a number of the Cuban travelers believed the American government was about to change the legal policy it has had since the mid-1990s to determine whether landed migrants could remain in the U.S.
“There is a great fear that policy will be removed,” said Royal Cayman Islands Police Inspector Ian Yearwood.
Whether the U.S. government will actually change that policy is uncertain at this stage.
Last Thursday, two makeshift boats carrying 66 people passed through Cayman Brac. Two people aboard one craft opted to stay in the Brac and get repatriated. That craft, then carrying 29 people, showed up off the coast of Grand Cayman on Saturday and made off toward Honduras.
Another craft carrying 35 Cubans also passed by the Brac last Thursday and is believed to have continued on toward Central America.
On Monday morning, another smaller craft carrying 11 Cuban migrants was allowed to stop in the Brac until sea conditions improved.
The Cayman Islands Joint Marine Unit, operated by the Royal Cayman Islands Police, Her Majesty’s Customs and the Immigration Department, has only one patrol boat in Cayman Brac. Marine Unit Inspector Yearwood said, if the need should arise, the unit could call up assistance from Grand Cayman.
Mr. Yearwood said the steady influx of Cuban migrants taxes the department’s resources. “We just have to carry out those [patrol] duties until we see a decrease in the numbers [of migrants],” he said.
Increasing numbers of Cuban migrants arriving since late last year is not unique to the Cayman Islands. The Associated Press has reported that in the first five days of 2015, 96 Cuban migrants were intercepted in the Florida Straits off the southeastern coast of the U.S.
In December 2014, 481 Cuban migrants were intercepted, either at sea or having landed in the U.S. _ a more than 100 percent increase compared to December 2013. Currently, whether illegal migrants are “landed” in the U.S. or discovered at sea makes a significant difference to their chances of remaining in the U.S.
In 1995, Congress revised the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, basically allowing anyone who fled Cuba and who managed to enter the U.S. to pursue residency a year after entering. President Bill Clinton’s administration agreed with the Cuban government that it would stop admitting migrants found at sea.
Since then, a Cuban found in the waters between the two nations is repatriated or sent to another country, if it is determined to be unsafe to send them back to Cuba. Anyone who makes it to shore gets an opportunity to remain in the U.S. and potentially qualify for expedited permanent resident status.
President Barack Obama’s recent announcement regarding his administration’s change in policy toward Cuba brought some concerns that the so-called “wet foot/dry foot” policy would be brought to an end and that, going forward, any illegal migrants would be expelled whether found on land or at sea.
U.S. Coast Guard officials said earlier this month that “coyotes” – people who profit by assisting in the transport of illegal migrants – were perpetuating rumors that the wet foot/dry foot policy would end, seeking to encourage more illegal migration.
“The [Obama] administration’s recent announcement regarding Cuba does not affect immigration policies including ‘wet foot, dry foot’ or the Cuban Adjustment Act – which only Congress can change,” according to a statement from the U.S. Coast Guard earlier this month.