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Coast Guard, Cuban migrants continue deadly hide-and-seek

Coast Guard, Cuban migrants continue deadly hide-and-seek
BY JENNIFER KAY AND TONY WINTON
Associated Press

With a shift in the relationship between Havana and Washington, many
Cubans are now attempting a risky sea crossing out of fear that the U.S.
will change its “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy allowing any Cuban reaching
U.S. land to stay and pursue citizenship.

Without it, they’d be treated like other foreigners caught illegally in
the country — ineligible for citizenship and subject to deportation.

The U.S. Coast Guard returns any Cuban migrants caught at sea to the
communist island. Authorities have captured or intercepted more than
2,600 since Oct. 1, and that tally is expected to match or surpass last
year’s total of nearly 4,000.

“It’s fair to say that this is the ‘Wild West’ of the Coast Guard,” said
Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma, spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Miami-based 7th
District, which patrols the Florida Straits. “We’ve got drugs, we’ve got
migrants and we’ve got search and rescue, and we’ve got an enormous
area, approximately the size of the continental United States.”

PILOT’S VIEW

The steady hum of a Coast Guard aircraft flying low loops over these
swift, dark blue waters broadcasts a distinct message to migrants:
Nothing has changed.

The Coast Guard planes are equipped with sensors that pick out shapes on
the water’s surface miles away. From a patrol altitude of about 1,500
feet, cruise ships look like smudges on the horizon and sailboats are
white dots with long wakes.

A migrant vessel appears the size of a buoy. Pilots look for something
suspicious: waves that don’t break quite right, a dark speck in a
cloud’s shadow, the glint of something tossed overboard or the ripple of
a blue tarp.

“I’ve seen two guys on a Styrofoam sheet with two backpacks,” Lt. Luke
Zitzman said from the cockpit of a recent patrol.

Coast Guard crews will open their cargo doors to toss buckets containing
water and food, sometimes their own lunches, down to migrants
frantically signaling for help.

They’ve also watched migrants push away life jackets and inflatable
rafts thrown down to keep them afloat in deep waters before a Coast
Guard cutter arrives. If they can see a shoreline, many migrants will
try to swim for it.

“That must be really frustrating, to see that’s freedom but not realize
how far away that it really is,” said Lt. Hans de Groot, the pilot of a
recent patrol.

FORCED ROOMMATES

Once picked up by the Coast Guard, migrants find themselves transferred
from cutter to cutter before they return to Cuba.

Aboard the cutter Charles David Jr., crew members sometimes recognize
faces among the roughly 900 migrants who have crossed the decks since
2013. A family with a 4-year-old girl has shown up twice, and other
migrants have confessed to getting caught half a dozen times or more.

Although Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Beaudoin calls the migrants his guests, some
can’t be pacified. Past guests have lashed out at crew, refused food and
water or tried to hurt themselves, hoping to win a transfer to Florida.
(That rarely works.)

“They’re humans; they’re trying to make a better life for themselves.
They’re not just trying to come to the U.S. to freeload. We’ve had some
that have been on board six, seven times, and there’s definitely
desperation there,” said Boatswain 2nd Class Matthew Karas, watching
over the migrants.

In their wake, the Coast Guard burns or sinks migrants’ rafts. Lately,
Beaudoin has noticed many rafts primarily made from construction spray
foam, enforced with rebar and wrapped in vinyl tarps. These won’t sink,
and the Coast Guard rigs them with transmitters that alert other vessels
to the obstacle in the water.

“You look at all the risks that they’re taking on those ventures and not
being successful, and yet not being thwarted enough to say, ‘I’m not
going to do it a 16th time,'” Beaudoin said, squinting into the sun’s
glare off the water. “One can’t underestimate the power of the
motivation of the migrant trying to enter the United States.”

Source: Coast Guard, Cuban migrants continue deadly hide-and-seek |
Miami Herald Miami Herald –
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/article23826541.html

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