Obama’s diplomatic deal with Cuba sparks surge in immigration

The Washington Times — The number of Cubans fleeing to the U.S. has surged since President Obama’s diplomatic deal with the island nation, according to statistics that lawmakers on Capitol Hill said suggest the administration was caught off guard.

The Coast Guard interdicted more than 340 Cubans in the final two weeks of December, more than double the 140 who came in the first half of the month, before Mr. Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement that he would try to restore more normal diplomatic ties with Cuba. In the first seven days of January, another 144 came, keeping up the frenetic pace, according to Coast Guard records shared with Congress.

Mr. Obama’s announcement set off rumors that the U.S. would soon end its special immigration policies for Cubans, which sparked a scramble as migrants tried to beat what they believed to be a mid-January deadline for getting into the U.S., ahead of the immigration changes. The changes are merely rumors and no immediate action is pending, but they proved a powerful lure for hundreds trying the dangerous crossing.

“The Coast Guard protects our coastlines, and apprehensions of Cuban migrants could only be expected to increase in light of the Cuba decision,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and chairman of the House Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on the Coast Guard. “I hope the administration consulted with the Coast Guard through its decision-making, but nothing so far shows the administration did so to any great degree.”

Mr. Hunter wrote a letter Monday asking the Coast Guard to detail whether the White House consulted on its diplomatic plans.

Mr. Obama last month announced a prisoner swap with Cuba, sending home three Cubans serving time in U.S. prison for spying, and getting back an American government contractor, Alan Gross, and a U.S. spy in exchange.

The president also said he would try to open an embassy in Cuba, further ease the trade and travel embargo and work toward more normalized relations with the nation.

Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in South Florida, said attempted crossings spike anytime Cubans perceive a change in U.S. policy.

He said the Coast Guard has increased the numbers of cutters and flights to its patrols and is keeping pace with the surge.

He said the rafts and boats the Coast Guard has seen in recent weeks appear to have been put together quickly and precariously.

“This is a dangerous and deadly journey,” the spokesman said. “In many cases, it’s more than an interdiction; it’s a rescue. These boats are taking on water.”

Cuban migration has been ticking up in recent years across the sea and across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Coast Guard reported interdicting 82 Cubans in December 2011, 104 a year later and 222 in 2013. That number shot up to 507 last month, most in the two weeks after the president’s announcement.

Cuban migration across the Mexican border is also up. The Border Patrol reports apprehending more than 600 Cubans attempting to cross in fiscal year 2014. U.S. Customs and Border Protection didn’t provide information about crossings since the president’s announcement.

Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said a continuing economic crisis, political stagnation and a pent-up demand for U.S. visas that swamps the number available contribute to the flow.

Cubans have created the recent spike because they want to get to the U.S. before the country changes its policies that allow those who reach land to gain legal status quickly.

“There’s a valid concern on both sides of the Florida Straits,” Mr. Duany said. “People here in Florida are also talking about the possibility that Congress might be looking at the Cuban Adjustment Act, either repealing it or changing it.”

No proposals are pending and the Obama administration has said it doesn’t expect changes in the near future, but several high-profile lawmakers have said policy will change eventually if the U.S. normalizes relations with Cuba.

Meanwhile, Cuba notified the Obama administration this week that it had released 53 political prisoners whose freedom the White House sought.

Critics said some of those were freed previously and downplayed the move because many others remain imprisoned. One report said more than 8,900 people became political prisoners in the first 11 months of 2014.

“In short, while 53 political prisoners have been let out of jail, the same corrupt jailer is still ruling the country,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat. “The Castros have a long history of rearresting these political and human rights activists whom they’ve previously released.”