Cuban migrants desperate to reach the United States are increasingly violent and noncompliant with Coast Guard crews who detain them at sea, authorities said Wednesday, citing reports of attempted poisoning and self-inflicted wounds as rumors swirl that the "wet-foot, dry-foot'' policy will soon be abandoned.
U.S. immigration policies haven't changed since President Barack Obama ordered the restoration of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington in December 2014, and for over a year the Coast Guard has warned migrants and their relatives in the U.S. that no change is imminent.
But an ongoing surge in Cubans fleeing their homeland by sea is fueled by fears they soon will lose the "wet-foot, dry-foot'' benefits that allow those reaching U.S. land to stay and pursue citizenship, according to the chief of response for the Coast Guard's 7th District in Miami.
Security has been increased for Cuban migrants aboard Coast Guard vessels because more are jumping overboard, trying to poison themselves or suffering self-inflicted wounds in frantic attempts to be taken to the United States for treatment, Capt. Mark Fedor said.
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"It's been a dangerous uptick. The last six months, it's come to a head,'' Fedor said.
According to a Coast Guard tally provided to The Associated Press, compiled from crew reports of migrant hostility over the last six months, several makeshift vessels carrying a dozen or more Cuban migrants refused to stop for U.S. authorities, leading them on slow pursuits for hours before surrendering.
Among other incidents in the tally, two Cuban migrants were found with self-inflicted gunshot wounds, one migrant drank bleach before abandoning a rustic vessel, one migrant threatened officers with a machete and three separate times, migrants jumped overboard from Coast Guard cutters.
The agency said one group of 18 migrants refused lifejackets and used oars to try to fend off the Coast Guard, and another group of eight migrants who refused to stop for 72 hours attempted to light a Molotov cocktail before complying with orders to stop.
A handful of violent incidents with noncompliant migrants from Cuba, Haiti or elsewhere in the Caribbean are routinely reported each year by Coast Guard crews. Rarely are the migrants involved brought to shore.
Aboard Coast Guard vessels, all migrants receive food, shelter and medical care before they're returned to their homelands. Other migrants are deported if they reach land, but Cubans are allowed to remain in the U.S.; Cubans caught at sea are taken back to the communist island.
Along with a general increase in migrant traffic through the Caribbean toward Florida over the past couple of years, the Coast Guard has recorded a significant spike in the number of Cubans attempting the risky sea voyage since December 2014.
Since Oct. 1, U.S. authorities say they have captured, intercepted or chased away over 1,980 Cuban migrants. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 4,473 Cuban migrants were kept from reaching U.S. shores, an increase over the 3,737 in the 2014 fiscal year and 2,218 in 2013.
This month alone, U.S. authorities say they have encountered 435 Cuban migrants, compared with 355 in January 2015 and 240 in the previous January.
The Coast Guard has reallocated some resources to boost patrols in the waters off Florida, Fedor said.
"One thing we've done is increase the level of security on the cutters after the interdiction occurs, because we've had instances where people have jumped overboard to swim to a buoy or because they think they see land,'' Fedor said.
The migrants tell crews they don't see any future for themselves in Cuba's poverty, and they fear their window is closing to take advantage of the policy that shields them from deportation, Fedor said.
No other migrant groups have exhibited this level of noncompliance over the last year, Fedor said.
"It's pretty clear it's focused on the Cuban migration issue,'' Fedor said.