Migrant flow into US from Caribbean spikes
A recent spike in Cubans attempting to reach the United States by sea has generated headlines. But the numbers of Haitians and other Caribbean islanders making similar journeys are up even more. And while federal law grants legal residency to Cubans reaching US soil, anyone else can be detained and deported.
That law, the so-called 'wet foot-dry foot' policy, and Coast Guard operations related to migrants remain unchanged even as Cuban and US leaders say they are restoring diplomatic relations after more than 50 years.
"The Coast Guard strongly discourages attempts to illegally enter the country by taking to the sea. These trips are extremely dangerous. Individuals located at sea may be returned to Cuba," said Lieutenant Commander Gabe Somma, spokesman for the Coast Guard's 7th District in Miami.
According to the Coast Guard, in the fiscal year that ended September 30, US authorities captured, intercepted or chased away at least 5,585 Haitians, 3,940 Cubans and hundreds from the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean countries attempting to sneak into the country.
That's at least 3,000 more migrants intercepted than in the previous fiscal year. It's also the highest number of Haitian migrants documented in five years and the highest number of Cubans recorded in six. It's unknown how many made it to US shores without getting caught, or how many died trying.
More than 1,920 migrants - most of them Cuban or Haitian - have been intercepted so far in the fiscal year that began October 1. The Coast Guard worries that number will only increase as news spreads about recent changes to the US immigration system, including fast-tracking visas for some Haitians already approved to join family here and an executive order signed by President Barack Obama that would make millions already illegally in the US eligible for work permits and protection from deportation.
"Any perceived changes to US immigration policy can cause a spike in immigration because it gives a glimmer of hope," even to people not eligible under those changes, said Captain Mark Fedor, chief of response for the Coast Guard's 7th District.
It's unclear why the numbers are jumping. Poverty and political repression have long caused Caribbean islanders to attempt the journey, and the outlook remains dismal for many. Coast Guard and US immigration officials think another calm summer without many tropical storms and a recovering US economy might have encouraged more to take to the sea. They also say the increased captures may reflect better law enforcement.
Smuggling operations in the region range from individual opportunists looking to use their vessels for extra money to sophisticated networks that may add drug shipments to their human cargo, said Carmen Pino, an official with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami. Smugglers also lure people, especially in relatively new routes that send Haitians into the neighbouring Dominican Republic to board boats bound for Puerto Rico.
US authorities deported George Lewis following a four-year sentence for a felony drug conviction in May 2013 to The Bahamas, where he was born but lived only briefly. His Haitian mother brought him to Miami as an infant, and though he always considered the US home, he never became a legal resident.
Just five months after he was deported, he got on a Bahamian smuggler's boat with about a dozen Haitians and Jamaicans trying to sneak into Florida. Lewis said he easily talked his way on to the boat. He just struck up a conversation with some locals at a sports bar in Bimini, a small cluster of Bahamian islands 57 miles (92 kilometres) off Miami.
"It was like getting a number from a girl. I just needed the right line," Lewis said in an interview in November. The failed trip cost $4,000.
The boat capsized and four Haitian women drowned. He and the others were rescued.
After his rescue, US authorities initially accused Lewis of being a smuggler, partly because he was the only person on board with a phone, which he used to call the emergency dispatcher when the boat started taking on water. He scoffed at the allegation. He remembered that on the boat he was talking to a teenage Haitian girl and thinking about his mother's boat trip from Haiti to The Bahamas as a young girl, a crossing he never thought he would emulate.
Now Lewis finds himself back in the US but not at home. He just started a five-year sentence for illegally re-entering the US and faces another forced return to The Bahamas, a homeland he doesn't know and where the government considers Haitians who have migrated illegally and their children an unwanted burden.
The 39-year-old Lewis knows he'd try to reach the US again.
"It's not worth losing your life, but what life do you have when you have a whole country against you? I'm completely alienated from a country where I'm supposed to be from," Lewis said.