Following the announcement of a thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba late in 2014, tens of thousands of new Cuban migrants have headed north for America – over 40,000 overall in 2015, the largest number for any year since 1980.
Many are driven by what they describe as the slow pace of change and the poor economy in Cuba. Others fear that the many decades of an open door policy to Cuban arrivals – so long as they make it to shore – may change as America normalizes its relationship with its island neighbor. U.S. officials say that they do not plan any changes to the policy.
Thousands of these refugees are taking advantage of a newly opened southern route – air travel to Ecuador, which has lifted its visa restrictions, followed by transit overland through Central America to the U.S. border with Mexico. But thousands more have opted for the traditional sea journey over the 100-plus nautical miles from Cuba to Florida.
Officials with the U.S. Coast Guard Seventh District, based in Miami, say that they are increasingly concerned over the volume – over 4,000 people by sea in fiscal 2015, nearly doubled year over year, and nearly 200 more in the first days of 2016 – but also by what they describe as the new desperation of Cuban migrants headed for America by sea. Officials say that refugees have shown a willingness to forcibly resist border agents, who may repatriate migrants traveling by boat under the “wet foot / dry foot” policy, which distinguishes those who make it to shore from those who do not.
"In the past year, we've had over 20 cases where there has been violence toward our boarding team members or other migrants on these vessels," said Capt. Mark Fedor, the District's chief of response, speaking to NBC News.
Cmdr. Tim Cronin, Coast Guard Seventh District deputy chief of law enforcement, said in a statement that “there is a legal and safe way to enter the United States [but] this is not it. The Coast Guard's priority in the Florida Straits is to protect people from the sea, but we also work hand in hand with our Customs and Border Protection to secure our borders from illegal entry."
While the migration volume on the route is a fraction of the million-strong stream of refugees who crossed the Mediterranean for European shores last year, it is enough to challenge local capacity to absorb the new asylum claimants. Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado recently told media that his city will need assistance from the federal government to house the thousands of new arrivals expected this year.