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U.S. sees more immigrants from Cuba as laws are relaxed

U.S. sees more immigrants from Cuba as laws are relaxed
Michael Weissenstein and Christine Armario
The Associated Press

HAVANA — The number of Cubans heading to the United States has increased
dramatically since the island lifted travel restrictions last year,
eliminating a costly exit visa and making it easier for emigrants to
return, new U.S. government figures show.

With greater access to cash and legal travel documents, the vast
majority are avoiding the risky journey by raft across the Florida
Straits. Instead, most of the new arrivals are passing through Mexico or
flying straight to the U.S.

More than 22,000 Cubans showed up on the U.S. borders with Mexico and
Canada in the fiscal year that ended in September. That was nearly
double the number in 2012 and almost triple the 2011 figure, according
to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

U.S. officials say that before the recent surge, more than 20,000 Cubans
formally migrated to the U.S. every year using visas issued by the U.S.
government, while several thousand more entered on tourist visas and
stayed. Adding in migrants who entered informally, U.S. officials
believe more than 50,000 Cubans were moving to the U.S. every year.

Changes in Cuban law have made it easier for citizens to legally travel
off the island of 11 million people. Reform of property laws now allows
Cubans to sell homes and vehicles, helping would-be emigrants pull
together the cash needed to buy airline tickets. As a result, the
historic pattern of Cuban migration is shifting, with more making the
journey by air and then land rather than by rickety rafts.

The Cuban government is struggling to grow a dysfunctional centrally
planned economy after decades of inefficiency and underinvestment.
Recent changes intended to encourage entrepreneurism have borne little
fruit and many people are seeking opportunities elsewhere.

While the number of Cubans trying to reach the United States by sea also
grew to nearly 4,000 people this past year, the biggest jump came from
people entering the U.S. by land. And those flying to Latin America or
straight to the United States generally belong to the more prosperous
and well-connected strata of society, accelerating the drain of Cuba’s
highly educated.

Many Cubans are using an opportunity offered by Spain in 2008 when it
allowed descendants of those exiled during the Spanish Civil War to
reclaim Spanish citizenship. A Spanish passport allows visa-free travel
to the U.S., Europe and Latin America.

The number of Cubans holding a Spanish passport tripled between 2009 and
2011, when it hit 108,000. Many of those Cubans fly to Mexico or the
U.S. on their Spanish passports, then present their Cuban passports to
U.S. officials.

Thousands of other travelers make their first stop in Ecuador, which
dropped a visa requirement for all tourists in 2008. The number of
Cubans heading to Ecuador hit 18,078 a year by 2012, the latest year for
which statistics are available. From there, many hopscotch north by
plane, train, boat or bus through Colombia, Central America and Mexico.

The government last year extended the length of time Cubans can be gone
without losing residency rights from one year to two. That means
migrants now can obtain U.S. residency and still return to Cuba for
extended periods, receive government benefits and even invest money
earned in the U.S.

Particularly notable is the departure of young and educated people with
the means to leave. In the capital, Havana, it seems most every 20- or
30-something has a plan to go sooner rather than later, mostly to the
United States. Nearly everyone has a close friend or relative who
already has left for the U.S. in the last few years.

Dozens of Cuban migrants show up every week at the Church World Service
office in Miami seeking help. Those without relatives in the U.S. are
resettled in other parts of the country, where they are connected with
jobs, housing and English classes.

Raimel Rosel, 31, said he left his job at a Havana center for pig
genetics and breeding when state security agents began questioning him
about extra income he earned from private consulting. He flew to Ecuador
in August and then traveled north for 30 days to the Mexican border.

“It was really tense,” he said, describing the trip as “utterly exhausting.”

Another man at the church office said “going by boat is madness.”

He and his wife and daughter all had Spanish passports, he said. After
selling their home in Matanzas province, outside the capital, for
$8,000, they flew to Mexico City and then Tijuana, where they crossed
into the U.S. He declined to provide his name in order to protect
relatives in Cuba from repercussions.

Cubans arriving at a U.S. border or airport automatically receive
permission to stay in the United States under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment
Act, which allows them to apply for permanent residency after a year,
almost always successfully. But the U.S. limits the number of immigrant
visas each year and tourist visas are expensive and difficult to get,
particularly for the young people who want most to get out, leaving them
two options: air or sea.

“People are studying the terrain and going where they stand the best
chance of success,” said Felipa Martinez, a 68-year-old retired office
worker in Havana.

While the number of Florida-bound rafters jumped sharply this year, the
2014 figure is generally in line with the average for the last decade.
The U.S. Coast Guard says it stopped 2,059 Cuban rafters on the high
seas as of Sept. 22, a few hundred more than the average of 1,750
interdicted each year since 2005. Roughly 2,000 more rafters made it to
dry land this year. The figure of those stopped was higher from 2005 to
2008, dipped dramatically for three years, then starting climbing again
in 2012. Statistics for all Coast Guard contacts with Cuban rafters were
not available for years earlier than 2010.

In one of the worst Cuban rafter tragedies in recent years, a raft that
had set off from the southern city of Manzanillo with 32 migrants was
lost at sea for nearly one month. By the time Mexican fisherman found
the craft in September, only 15 people were still alive. The others had
died at sea, their bodies thrown overboard, or tried to swim ashore. Two
of the survivors later died.

Nevertheless, good weather may have prompted more rafters to attempt the
journey this year, said Cmdr. Timothy Cronin, deputy chief of law
enforcement for the Coast Guard district responsible for most
interactions with Cuban rafters.

“There haven’t been any major storms that have come through the area, no
hurricanes,” he said. “We’ve been blessed and in a way cursed by every
day being a good day for a mariner to take to the sea, whether for good
or for bad.”

Those who reach Florida call home to Cuba, perhaps inspiring others to
attempt the trip despite the risks.

Yennier Martinez Diaz arrived in Florida on a raft with eight other
people after 10 days at sea in August. The group of friends and
neighbors from Camaguey, on Cuba’s northern coast, built the raft with
pieces of metal, wood and a motor belonging to an old Russian tractor.

Diaz, 32, earned about $10 a week cutting brush and sugarcane. He said
he wanted to help a brother with cancer by finding a higher-paying job
in the U.S.

After the motor nearly ran out of gas, the rafters drifted for days in
the open water. At one point, they hit a powerful storm and nearly drowned.

“I caution everyone not to come by sea,” he said, his face still red
from the sun.

Source: Yakima Herald Republic | U.S. sees more immigrants from Cuba as
laws are relaxed –

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