Paco sold everything he owned at home in the coastal town of Bahia Honda, west of Havana, to get out of Cuba. He also asked for help from relatives in South Florida. In an island where the minimum salary is $10 per month, it’s tough to pull together the $12,000 that people smugglers in Miami charge for the clandestine trip.
“In this town, everyone wants to leave” for the United States, he said. “Everyone wants to go.”
“In these kinds of towns, everyone knows everyone, and who are the ones who want to leave the country. The departure is organized in Miami in total secrecy, and only on the last day are the travelers told where on the coast to meet,” said Paco, who would not give his real name because leaving Cuba without official permission is a crime.
Even though the U.S. Coast Guard is under strict orders to return all would-be Cuban migrants intercepted at sea, island residents continue to try to reach the United States aboard rafts and speedboats.
Paco first tried to leave by sea in 2009, with eight other people. Barely into the trek, the homemade boat broke up and they wound up drifting for five days. He built another craft later, but had to abandon the plan after authorities were tipped off.
“It scares me. Of course it scares me. But I am more scared of spending my whole life stuck in this country, with nothing to offer my children,” he said as he looked off into the horizon. “Over there I would still have time to work hard and give them a future.”
“The key thing is not to be turned back. Nothing else. We Cubans are fighters and we always manage. The key is to get out of here,” he said.
A Coast Guard spokesman said about 52 Cubans have been intercepted trying to get to the United States so far in Fiscal Year 2020, which began Oct. 1. During FY 2019, 454 were intercepted at sea or detained when they landed in U.S. territory. And in FY 2018 the figure was 107.
The numbers were much higher before 2017, when the U.S. government ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed all Cubans who set foot on U.S. territory to remain. In 2016, 1,845 undocumented Cubans landed on U.S. shores. And in 2007, the number hit 4,161.
Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said he expects “a slight increase” in the number of Cuban rafter arrivals this year though not a massive exodus.
“Everything seems to indicate that the immigration policies of the Trump administration have reduced the number of Cubans who try to reach U.S. territory without authorization, if we compare it with the last two years of Barack Obama,” he told el Nuevo Herald. “For now, the volume of Cubans who come to Miami in different ways (maritime, land and air) has become stable and another episode as dramatic and explosive as the Mariel exodus and the (1994) balsero crisis does not appear to be imminent.”
Former President Barack Obama eliminated the “wet foot, dry foot policy,” which had been in place for more than 20 years, in January of 2017. The numbers of undocumented arrivals fell afterward, but after two years there’s been a recent uptick in the arrivals.
Martell Ramírez González fled Cuba a little more than a year ago aboard a homemade boat. He was accompanied by five other people, and after four days of tough sailing landed in Key west.
“The experience on that trek was unique. I don’t know that I would risk that crossing again. We had many difficulties at sea with the bad weather, and the boat even tipped over,” said Ramírez, who now lives in Miami.
“We landed in Key West, in a part of the Everglades. We were afraid of getting off the boat, because we thought there were crocodiles there, but in the end we had to do it,” Ramírez recalled.
He said the group ran into a man who allowed them to use his cellphone to call relatives.
“We wanted to turn ourselves in to the police, but he told us that if we did that we would be sent back to Cuba. We’re here thanks to that good man,” he added.
Ramírez then applied for political asylum but spent several months in immigration limbo.
“Life was really hard when I didn’t have documents. I was humiliated, doing the jobs that no one else wanted. I was earning less than $300 a week,” he said. “Now I am a new man. I already have a work permit and soon will apply for permanent residence.”
The Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans to obtain residence after one year and one day in the United States, if they arrive at a legal port of arrival. Those who arrive by sea without documents are not entitled to that benefit. But not all the legal ways of obtaining residence are closed off, said immigration attorney Alejandro Vázquez.
“The migrants who arrive by sea and are not detained can apply for asylum like anyone else,” said Vázquez, who represents Ramírez.
The attorney said even those who are detained on arrival and can demonstrate a credible fear of persecution if returned to the island could be freed on parole while awaiting a ruling on their asylum applications. They also could be held in immigration detention centers pending deportation.
While Cubans who apply for asylum along the U.S. southern border could wait months in Mexico for a ruling on their petitions, the petitions of those who manage to slip into U.S. territory normally take less than a year, said Vasquez.
He stressed that those Cubans should file asylum requests before the one-year anniversary of their arrival.
“Detaining these people during the asylum process is infrequent, but possible, and depends on domestic security issues, the criminal record of the person or any previous immigration violations,” the attorney added.
Vázquez said he expects the halt in consular services at the U.S. embassy in Havana, the additional difficulties applying for asylum at the border and the drop in the number of visas issued to Cubans will all lead to an increase in the number of rafters.
This article is part of a collaboration between the independent Cuban digital outlet 14ymedio and el Nuevo Herald.