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Refugee Surge Threatens U.S.-Cuba Migration Pact

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They once came on rafts fashioned from anything that floated, from inner-tubes to oil drums. Now they come in speedboats piloted by well-paid smugglers, some onetime drug dealers who now trade in human lives.

And there is little short of tragedy at sea that can stop them, U.S. officials admit.

Scores of Cuban refugees continued to wash up on shore over the past few days, apparently undeterred by the accident less than two weeks ago that stands as the deadliest smuggling case in South Florida history. Fourteen Cubans, most of them women and children, drowned when an overloaded boat capsized 30 miles south of here.

Among the nine who survived are two Florida men now charged with smuggling.

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The dramatic surge in the number of illegal immigrants nabbed on shore, up more than 400% this year, is seen by some U.S. officials as a threat to the migration accords that the Clinton administration forged with Fidel Castro’s government to end the 1994 rafter crisis, when more than 30,000 Cubans sailed to Florida on crude rafts.

In those accords, the U.S. agreed to repatriate Cubans interdicted at sea in exchange for a Cuban promise not to punish the failed defectors. The U.S. also increased to 20,000 the number of visas issued to Cubans each year.

“Both governments are concerned, and we see [the smuggling] as something we both have an interest in stopping,” John R. Hamilton, the deputy assistant secretary of State who met recently with Cuban officials in Havana, said in an interview.

He added that both countries “want to drive home to the Cuban public that this is not a way of entering the U.S.”

In the latest incidents, a total of 41 Cubans in three groups were discovered this week on Miami Beach and Key Biscayne after being dropped off by smugglers, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. Forty-five other migrants from Cuba were intercepted from Friday to Monday and detained, along with other groups of Haitians and Jamaicans.

So far this year more than 800 Cubans have been picked up after illegally entering South Florida, compared with 186 who successfully crossed the Florida Straits in 1997. Officials concede that by a conservative estimate only 1 in 5 illegal entrants is caught.

“There is no one fix,” said Keith A. Roberts, a Border Patrol spokesman, adding that federal agencies, along with state and local police, are investigating several smuggling operations, some of which are headed by experienced drug-runners. These traffickers, he said, offer to ferry in relatives of U.S. residents, charging an average of $1,500 a person.

The smuggling rings are well-organized and sophisticated, Roberts said, using fast boats, global positioning navigation systems, safe houses and enforcers “who use scare tactics or harm to keep people from talking.”

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“Smugglers are mercenaries, not patriots,” said Bill Kring, the Border Patrol’s chief agent in South Florida. “We think it’s tough love. If we force people to stay in their own countries, they may improve those countries.”

Officials acknowledge, however, that as long as the Cuban economy remains stagnant and family separation remains a fact of life for tens of thousands of Cubans in the U.S., illegal immigrants are bound to keep coming.

“There is a huge migration backlog in Cuba, where perhaps half a million people sign up for 5,000 lottery places,” said Max Castro, a research associate at the University of Miami’s North-South Center. “And if these frustrated potential immigrants have relatives in Miami willing to pay, they go.”

Once in the U.S., most illegal immigrants from Cuba are held only briefly and then released into the community. Cubans stopped at sea can be returned under the 1994 agreement. But without normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, the United States has no means to deport those without criminal records who make it to shore.

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In addition to the more than 800 Cuban immigrants known to have illegally entered the U.S. this year, nearly 1,000 more Cubans have been stopped short by the U.S. Coast Guard. Most of those have been returned to Cuba.

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.


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