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As Rumors Spread, More Cubans Try To Reach The U.S. By Sea

Since President Obama's announcement that he wants to normalize relations with Cuba, the U.S. Coast Guard says there has been a spike in the number of Cubans leaving their homeland on rafts and boats.

They're coming, officials say, because of a rumor in Cuba that the U.S. will soon change the policy that allows Cubans who reach the U.S. to remain in the country legally.

The commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District in Miami, Rear Adm. Jake Korn, says 481 Cubans attempted to reach the U.S. on rafts and boats last month — double the amount seen in December 2013.

"It's a pretty big uptick," he says. "And most of that happened since ... the president and Raul Castro's announcement."

"It's not uncommon for the migrants to indicate this is their fifth or sixth time — and they're going to try again."

On Dec. 17, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro said the two countries would be holding talks on resuming diplomatic relations and normalization. The first round of those talks gets underway later this month.

The surge in rafters wasn't unexpected, Korn says. Any time there's a real or perceived shift in policy between the U.S and Cuba, people take to the seas.

The latest wave of migrants is attempting the journey in makeshift vessels that Korn says are "literally taped together, Styrofoam pieces or pieces of wood. It's essentially flotsam. ... Sometimes we'll have a makeshift mast and a sail."

It's a short trip of about 100 miles or more, but on a raft, it can take several days or weeks. "There's lots of people in some of these vessels," Korn says, "and we've had some deaths this year. And we know that not all of these people make it."

In Miami, Ramon Saul Sanchez often knows about Cuban rafters before the Coast Guard. Sanchez hosts a nightly radio program in Miami and heads an anti-Castro group, the Democracy Movement.

"I get calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he says. "Many times mothers crying on the phone saying, 'My son, my daughter left Cuba. I don't know how, I don't know when.' "

Sanchez says the sudden surge in rafters was sparked by a rumor sweeping Cuba that on Jan. 15, there will be a change in immigration laws that will affect the Cuban Adjustment Act. "That deadline has prompted people to leave Cuba in whatever ways they can," he says.

It's a rumor that's unfounded. The Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans who arrive in the U.S. to remain as permanent residents. It's is a law that can only be changed by Congress, and no congressional action is imminent.

The Coast Guard sent out a release this week stating that fact, hoping to get the message to Cubans that immigration policies remain unchanged despite Obama's announcement.

With talks on normalizing relations set to begin between the U.S. and Cuba, Coast Guard officials say they're on alert for more rumors and anything that could lead to an exodus of rafters from the island.

Even with the upsurge, the Coast Guard intercepts the vast majority of Cuban rafters — more than 80 percent, according to Tim Cronin, deputy chief of enforcement for the Coast Guard in Miami.

It's a dangerous journey with a low chance for success, but one Cronin says some Cubans make time and again. "It's not uncommon for a Coast Guard cutter to embark somebody they've seen before," he says. "And it's not uncommon for the migrants to indicate this is their fifth or sixth time — and they're going to try again."

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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