When Cuban rafters set out across the treacherous Florida Straits, sharks and violent storms are the least of their concerns.
Instead, their top priority is to avoid detection, not only by Cuban coastal patrols, but also by the US Coast Guard, which is obliged under Clinton administration policy to return to Cuba all refugees intercepted at sea.
In a deadly game of cat and mouse played out over hundreds of miles of ocean, only those who actually make it to dry land in the US are allowed to stay and apply for asylum.
But the case of Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy, is highlighting a little-known wrinkle in US-Cuba migration policy. It is a humanitarian exemption in which intercepted refugees in critical need of medical attention may be immediately transported to Florida hospitals. In the process, they automatically become "dry-foot" immigrants entitled to political asylum.
That's what happened to Elian, who was discovered after drifting for two days in an inner tube.
And that's what happened last Friday, when the Coast Guard intercepted 14 Cubans in a homemade boat off Miami. They had been drifting for more than a week without fresh water, and US officials determined that they might die without immediate medical help. All were later released to relatives in Miami.
"It is exactly the sort of decision that can send the wrong signals to Cubans - that if you come here and are sick enough, that will get you preferred immigration status under the Cuban Adjustment Act," says Julia Sweig of the Cuban Task Force at the Council on Foreign Relations. "We've already seen Cubans drinking lighter fluid to get here."
Ms. Sweig says the Coast Guard's willingness to transport intercepted Cubans to US hospitals may represent an emerging practice that further undercuts the effectiveness of US-Cuba migration policy.
Critics say the policy encourages illegal human smuggling and life-threatening journeys by desperate Cubans. Prior to 1994, the US Coast Guard welcomed with open arms any refugees it rescued in the Florida Straits. Today, the Coast Guard is seen by Cuban refugees as the enemy, except in the most desperate situations.
Coast Guard officials defend their decision to rush the 14 Cubans to a hospital as necessary humanitarian action.
"We do get cases where migrants are aware of the policy, and they will attempt to do bodily harm to themselves," says Gibran Soto, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami.
"It is a case-by-case basis," he says. "But if there is credible evidence that a migrant is in need of immediate medical attention, they are taken to the closest hospital."
Mr. Soto says the humanitarian exemption has existed since US policy changed in 1994 to require the return to Cuba of refugees intercepted at sea.
He says the only thing that is different recently is that the policy has been applied in a few high-profile cases and that more people are aware of it.
Jose Basulto, head of Brothers to the Rescue, and other Cuban exiles in Miami say the administration made a major mistake by changing its policy to cooperate with the Castro government in the return of refugees to Cuba.
Mr. Basulto says the pilots of Brothers to the Rescue, who fly over the Florida Straits to help spot Cuban rafters in distress, often face a dilemma: If they notify the Coast Guard, the rafters will be intercepted and returned to Cuba. But if they don't alert the Coast Guard, the rafters may die at sea.
"We drop a radio [with water and other supplies] and ask the refugees if they want assistance from the Coast Guard. In effect, we ask them if they are ready to throw in the towel," he says.
"If they wish to continue [to try to reach the US] we will not interfere."
There is one exception. "If a pilot sees children there, it is his call. We will not permit anyone to endanger the life of a child, no matter what the desires of the refugees are," Basulto says.
The 1994 change in US policy came after more than 30,000 Cubans took to rafts in an attempt to reach the US.
Alarmed that Fidel Castro might unleash another version of the Mariel boatlift, flooding south Florida with Cuban immigrants, the Clinton administration negotiated a deal.
The US agreed to return rafters to Cuba if intercepted at sea, and the Cuban government agreed to permit up to 20,000 Cubans a year to migrate to the US through a US visa lottery system.
The Gonzalez case has illustrated the special treatment Cuban immigrants have historically enjoyed under US immigration law.
And some critics are calling for reforms to adopt more uniform procedures that would apply equally to Cubans as well as to Haitians and other immigrants.
Shawn Malone, a Cuba expert at Georgetown University's Caribbean Project, says the Elian Gonzalez case has helped put a human face on the US-Cuba migration policy debate, but he doubts it will lead to substantial reforms - and certainly not in a presidential election year.
"This is a year the administration is hoping to avoid anything controversial," Mr. Malone says.
In the meantime, Cuban authorities have launched their own public-relations campaign to end the long-time US policy of automatically granting asylum to any Cubans who reach US soil.
Havana lashes out
Mr. Castro has criticized the policy as a "killing machine," because he says it encourages Cuban immigrants to take dangerous risks.
Castro has said US policy - and its dangerous incentives - played a key role in the death of Elian's mother during her attempt to cross the Florida Straits with Elian as part of a failed smuggling operation.
The Cuban daily newspaper, Granma, proclaimed recently: "Every grave incident of a boat wreck, kidnapping, or death will be known by our people and by world public opinion as irrefutable proof of the cynicism of the policies of the United States against Cuba."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society