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More Cubans seeking refuge

US boosts patrols; number halted is highest in decade

MIAMI -- As a hurricane spun in the Gulf of Mexico, about to strike Texas and Louisiana, a different sort of maritime drama was unfolding off Florida's southeastern coast -- the desperate attempt of 10 Cuban men, riding a homemade boat shaped like a coffin, to reach US shores.

As local TV stations beamed live images throughout South Florida, the men were stopped by the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security about a mile east of Haulover Beach, north of Miami Beach. Six have been released in Cuba, and the rest were transferred to the US base at Guantanamo Bay for interviews with US immigration officials, Petty Officer Ryan Doss, a Coast Guard spokesman, said Tuesday.

The dramatic television pictures -- at one point, the Cubans' boat was bumped, spilling four men into the water -- highlighted a development that usually has been occurring much farther offshore, out of the public eye: The number of Cubans trying to reach the United States via the perilous journey across the Florida Straits has reached its highest level in more than a decade.

The Coast Guard says it intercepted 1,499 Cubans before they could reach US shores last year. So far this year, it has halted 2,246 Cubans at sea.

''Definitely the numbers are up. One would think there are also more getting through," said Luis Diaz, another Coast Guard spokesman. One key factor in the increased interceptions, Diaz said, is that the Coast Guard and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, have become more vigilant in monitoring the stretch of water between the United States and Cuba.

In July, the Coast Guard announced that it was shifting two additional patrol boats to the Florida Keys and increasing both sea and aerial surveillance.

Planes and helicopters from the federal Customs and Border Protection service also were ordered to help, and the Florida Highway Patrol was enlisted as well, to check boats being towed south on Florida's roads to see whether they belonged to smugglers intending to bring back Cubans.

Diaz said the increased efforts, which had to be modified temporarily so the Coast Guard could rescue victims of Hurricane Katrina, have paid off.

''The reality is that we're stopping more," the Coast Guard spokesman said.

At-sea interdictions total more than in any single year since 1994, when more than 37,000 Cubans, many using inner tubes or flimsy rafts, braved the hazards of an ocean voyage to reach the United States.

Since then, US immigration policy has been changed to distinguish between Cubans detained on the water -- who usually get sent back -- and those who manage to set foot in the United States. They usually are allowed to stay.

That helps explain why on Sept. 23, as Hurricane Rita neared Texas and Louisiana, the men in the homemade boat were so eager to reach southeastern Florida.

Last week, the Coast Guard said it repatriated 107 would-be migrants to Bahia de Cabanas, Cuba, after they were detained in nine separate interception operations over a 10-day period. They had used rafts, rickety watercraft, and a speedboat in abortive bids.

Diaz said Cuban families in the United States might pay $8,000 to $15,000 to smuggle in a relative. ''People here are paying thousands to get their loved ones killed," he said.

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