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New Cuban escape route: via Mexico

Starting Nov. 20, undocumented Cubans found in Mexico will face immediate deportation.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 5, 2008

On duty: Members of the Mexican Navy patrolled the waters off Isla Mujeres, Mexico, on Sunday.

Asel llana Ugalde

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Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Cubans have a new route to the US – and it goes through Cancún.

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As the US Coast Guard has beefed up patrols off Miami, more Cubans are fleeing to Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, 120 miles west of Cuba's tip. From the Mexican resort area, smugglers take them north to the US border. Last year, more than 11,000 Cubans were caught crossing into the US from Mexico, twice the number caught in 2004.

It's also put pressure on Mexico. On a recent day, the Mexican Navy patrols the choppy turquoise waters off Isla Mujeres, where they've recently added picking up undocumented Cubans to their list of duties that already include interdicting drug smugglers and looking for boaters in distress. That's why Mexico's tightening its immigration rules.

Starting Nov. 20, Cubans found in Mexico will face immediate deportation.

"The option of repatriation will reduce the number of Cubans arriving in Mexico," says Luis Alberto Molina Rios, the director of the regional office in Cancun of the National Institute of Migration for the state of Quintana Roo. "Today they know that if they are caught here, within 30 days they can be in the US."

Migration route shifting

The flow of Cubans into the Miami area has shifted in recent years because of stricter controls by the US Coast Guard. During fiscal year 2008, for example, 2,199 Cubans were interdicted at sea, down from 2,868 the year before, says US Coast Guard Lt. Matthew Moorlag, public affairs officer for the 7th District in Miami.

He attributes the drop to stricter enforcement, including greater cooperation between various federal agencies. "We certainly have an increased patrol presence," Mr. Moorlag says.

With beefed up security, Cubans have been heading for Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, just 120 miles west. And the easternmost island, Isla Mujeres, has been at the center of the new course, says Mr. Angulo Jimenez. In 2005, the Navy here intercepted 215 undocumented Cubans; that more than doubled to 480 last year.

Mexico is a logical destination for many Cubans because most caught here are simply fined and given up to 30 days to leave, says Mr. Molina Rios.

The head of the National Institute of Migration, Cecilia Romero, said that of 2,030 Cubans detained in Mexico from January through August, only 28 were returned home.

Most head north along the same routes that Mexicans and Central Americans have long taken in their attempts to get to the US. Yet unlike other immigrants, Cubans simply walk across the US border and apply for residency: under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, those caught in US waters are sent home, while those who reach land are usually allowed to stay.

It's become so common that it's garnered a new phrase: "dusty foot." But now, under the new policy between Cuba and Mexico, the majority could be repatriated home, says Molina Rios.

This will likely reduce the flows of Cubans attempting to reach the US via Mexico, says Eduardo Matias Lopez, who founded the Cuban-Mexican Civic Association in Mexico City. "But in terms of corruption, that will only increase," he says.