The Washington Post
December 31, 1998

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
                  fast boat."

                  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
                  sophisticated speedboats."

                  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
                  their chance."

                  "It is a possible way of affecting the conduct of potential refugees within the
                  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 the
                  smuggling operations.

                  "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."

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