Faster Boats Carry Cubans, Haitians to Florida
By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 1998; Page A02
MIAMI, Dec. 30—The flimsy rafts that once carried thousands of illegal
immigrants from Cuba and Haiti into the waters off South Florida are
becoming a thing of the past. In their place are fast-moving motor vessels
piloted by well-paid professional smugglers who are bringing a rising
number of people to the beaches around Miami.
"This has been a very busy year. The idea is not to get caught by the [U.S.]
Coast Guard," said Dan Geoghegan, assistant chief of the U.S. Border
Patrol in Florida. "The idea is not to leave Cuba in a raft, but to leave it in a
The last "hallmark year" for illegal immigration to the area was 1994,
Geoghegan said, when more than 30,000 Cubans made it to South
Florida. But those high numbers prompted a dramatic change in
U.S.-Cuban policy in 1996. Since then, any refugees from Cuba captured
by the Coast Guard at sea are automatically sent back to Cuba instead of
being allowed to enter the United States.
If the Cuban immigrants reach American soil, however, they are usually
permitted to remain. This has made a faster boat a prerequisite, to dodge
the Coast Guard and get all the way to shore rather than hope to be
picked up at sea as in in the past.
The policy toward captured Haitians -- about 25,000 of whom arrived
here during that benchmark year of 1994 -- has been to return them to
Haiti, regardless of whether they are caught at sea or make it to shore.
Geoghegan said that in fiscal 1998, which ended Sept. 30, 1,063 illegal
immigrants were detected as they arrived on Florida shores, with about
two-thirds of them from Cuba and the rest largely from Haiti. From Oct. 1
through today, he estimates that another 550 have arrived, again the
majority of them Cubans. Because U.S. officials base their estimates on
those detected on arrival, they are unable to say how many others may
have slipped through.
The Christmas holidays have brought much of the deluge: Since last Friday
alone, 13 separate landings have been detected, involving about 145 men,
women and children. The illegal immigrants, detained by Border Patrol
agents, apparently were operating on a mistaken theory that officials would
be relaxing their scrutiny during the holidays.
"One theory for all the activity is that the Cubans who came here in 1994
have been here four years now, saving money," Geoghegan said. "It is not
inconceivable that they could be funding relatives to come here too."
Furthermore, the number of Cubans and Haitians captured at sea this year
and returned to their countries has more than doubled over last year,
according to U.S. Coast Guard officials, who also have noted the recent
smuggling trend. As of today, 1,025 Cubans and 1,206 Haitians had been
captured by the Coast Guard at sea this year, compared with 406 Cubans
and 587 Haitians last year.
"We're seeing more and more smugglers bringing human cargo," said
Coast Guard Petty Officer Jeff Murphy. "A big concern we see quite often
is when we stop them at sea and we notice grossly overloaded vessels.
Most of those vessels do not have life jackets, and conditions can change
so drastically out there."
Three illegal-entry cases this year have involved loss of life. The most
recent was Dec. 17, when a boat overloaded with 23 Cubans capsized in
the Gulf Stream off Elliott Key, south of Miami. Eight people were
confirmed dead, another six are missing and the smuggling suspect who
was arrested with the boat could face the death penalty, according to the
U.S. attorney's office here.
Murphy said boats captured by the Coast Guard in recent months have
ranged from "homemade vessels with outboard motors to more
Smuggling illegal immigrants "takes on a variety of forms," said Geoghegan.
"Six Cubans can chip in on a boat and bring themselves in, and that is
called cooperative smuggling. What we are seeing here is their relatives are
residing in the United States and they seek out a smuggler in the United
States and pay him money, between $7,000 and $9,000" a person.
Occasionally, the pickup is made in Cuba, but more often the illegal
immigrants first make it to the Bahamas, where they are met by the
smuggler hired by family members, Geoghegan said.
"We've had loads of 37; we've had loads of six," he said. "It is not
uncommon in a large group for many to be related, and sometimes some
are related to the smuggler. The fact that there is an element of gain still
makes it a smuggling."
The most recent landing occurred about 2 p.m. today, when Monroe
County sheriff's deputies detained 21 Cubans who had come ashore on a
23-foot boat at Key Largo, Geoghegan said. Like other Cubans who
make it here, they likely will be quickly processed by the U.S. Immigration
and Naturalization Service and released pending the outcome of their case,
according to an INS spokeswoman.
Jose Basulto, head of Brothers to the Rescue, a Cuban-exile
pro-democracy group based in Miami, said one rumor floating through the
Cuban community here to account for the recent influx of refugees involves
possible disinformation by the Cuban government that U.S. policy may be
tightened further and that the potential exiles "must act now or forever lose
"It is a possible way of affecting the conduct of potential refugees within
island that it is now or never," he said. "The government of Cuba has been
known to do things like this before -- a form of human blackmail to
pressure the United States to do certain things."
Basulto said exile groups in Miami "are categorically not involved" in
"Everybody I know of has condemned this," he said. "We contacted our
brothers in Cuba and said that not only is this dangerous, but it doesn't
forward a solution from within the island to the problem."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company