Cuban immigration surges after thaw in US-Cuba relations

MIAMI - The number of Cuban migrants looking to enter the United States ballooned in early 2015, partly driven by uncertainty over the future of special immigration consideration for Cubans after the two countries announced efforts to improve ties.

In the first three months of the year, 9,371 Cubans arrived in the United States, mostly on the Mexico border and in Miami, an increase of 118 per cent over same period in 2014, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

Experts say the numbers indicate a surge since the Dec. 17 announcement of efforts by the presidents of Cuba and the United States to restore diplomatic ties and work to normalise relations after more than 50 years of hostility.

"Cubans on the island are increasingly concerned that the special legal status that they have under current US law might be taken away," said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

Under the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act of 1966 Cubans who reach US soil have the right to stay and seek residency, a status not offered to any other nationality. A policy known as "wet foot, dry foot" means only those Cubans intercepted at sea are sent back to their communist-run island.

The Obama administration has tried to dispel rumours the welcome mat for Cubans will be withdrawn. "The Administration's recent announcement regarding Cuba has not changed or altered in any significant way the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act," the Customs and Border Protection agency said in a statement to Reuters.

Iris Calle, a spokeswoman for Miami's Church World Services, which offers assistance to new arrivals, says it has been inundated with Cuban refugees since mid-December.

Lady Castillo Miranda, who was waiting to meet a caseworker, told Reuters she and her brother were among 13 aboard a boat that came ashore on Dec 28. A 23-year-old resident of Santa Cruz, Cuba, Miranda said she had attempted two crossings in the last two years. "I had to try again because I heard the law was going to change," she said.

The US Coast Guard says it spotted 2,500 migrants since the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, almost all of whom were repatriated. The Coast Guard counted 3,677 Cubans seeking to reach Florida during its 2014 fiscal year.

Many cross the 90-mile (140-km) Florida Straits on makeshift rafts. Those who reach soil usually come on sturdier home-made boats.

US officials note that the numbers of migrants were already trending upwards before the Dec. 17 accords.