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New U.S. border plan may lead more Cubans to attempt the risky journey by sea

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Several hundred migrants, most of them Cuban, have landed in the past week. The Biden administration just announced a new program that aims to close the country's southern border to unauthorized migrant crossings. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, there are concerns it could lead to more Cubans attempting the risky journey by the sea.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: For much of the past year, rickety boats packed with migrants, mostly from Cuba, have been landing almost daily in Florida. Many come ashore in the Keys, the part of Florida closest to the island. The migrant landings drew national attention over the New Year's holiday weekend, when boats carrying more than 400 Cubans landed on a remote island, forcing the closure of Dry Tortugas National Park.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in Spanish).

ALLEN: A Floridian who was camping on the island witnessed some of the landings and posted a video on social media. By yesterday, the Coast Guard said a total of 427 Cuban migrants had boarded its cutters and were taken to Key West for processing. The Coast Guard says the number of migrants intercepted at sea has spiked in recent months, with more than 4,000 Cubans stopped since October. Most are returned to Cuba, but many vessels are evading federal authorities. Rick Ramsay, the sheriff in the Florida Keys, told Fox News his officers have responded to dozens of migrant landings over the past week. He says the surge has overwhelmed Customs and Border Protection officials in his area.

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RICK RAMSAY: We actually had - the other day, we called for a pickup for a group of migrants. They were so busy they told us they may not be able to arrive until the following day.

ALLEN: The numbers of Cubans arriving by sea are dwarfed by the massive numbers coming over the U.S.-Mexico border. In the last fiscal year, 220,000 Cubans arrived in the U.S. along the southern border, more than double the number who came more than four decades ago during the Mariel boatlift. Sebastian Arcos, with the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, says it's the largest exodus Cuba has ever seen.

SEBASTIAN ARCOS: And the reason is that Cuba is right now under its worst economic and political crisis since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

ALLEN: Arcos believes conditions are more desperate than in the early 1990s, when the loss of support from the Soviet Union plunged Cuba into a prolonged economic crisis. As conditions have worsened, more and more Cubans have scraped together the $12,000 to $15000 needed to fly to Nicaragua and then pay coyotes to get them overland to the U.S. border.

ARCOS: It's what the Cubans jokingly call the tourism to see the volcanoes in Hialeah. Because they claim that they go to Nicaragua to see the volcanoes, but they actually end up in Hialeah.

ALLEN: Julio Cesar Rodriguez Acevedo made that trip in October with his wife and daughter. It was a 17-day journey. He's now being supported by family members in the Miami area.

JULIO CESAR RODRIGUEZ ACEVEDO: (Through interpreter) It's not just me, but pretty much every young person from the moment they're able to think for themselves, the first thing they think is, how do I get out of here?

ALLEN: Under a new program outlined yesterday by the Biden administration, migrations by Cubans like Rodriguez will now be significantly curtailed. Along with migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Haiti, Cubans won't be able to apply for asylum at the border. People from those countries with sponsors in the U.S. will have to apply from abroad in order to be allowed entry. Sebastian Arcos with Florida International University says closing the southern border may convince more to attempt the perilous journey by sea.

ARCOS: If this is not clarified soon, my prediction is that it will generate a spike in the number of people trying to reach South Florida via boat.

ALLEN: Biden administration officials say the new rules apply to anyone from the four listed countries, including Cuba, that attempt to enter the U.S. illegally at any point, including coming by boat across the Florida Straits.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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