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Taking the long way to America

Cuban immigrants try to reach the Florida coast in a makeshift boat made out of a 1951 Chevrolet truck.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The other half of the White House lobbying team, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, was on Capitol Hill today talking about immigration. He was playing to the political side of the debate, promising tighter border security.

But those borders aren't just the land crossings. Since 1965, virtually anyone coming here from Cuba has been admitted as a refugee. Since 1994, though, only those who actually set foot on dry American soil get to stay. Anybody caught at sea is sent home. So many Cuban migrants no longer take a boat to Florida. Lygia Navarro explains what they're doing now.


Lydia Navarro: You're in Cuba without a visa to the U.S. and you want out. What do you do? With all the stories of capsized boats, hopping a raft isn't too appealing.

There is one much easier way — if you have family abroad, that is. Just have your relatives pay 11 grand, and a smuggler will come get you. This man we'll call Manuel did just that.

Manuel (voice of interpreter): We walked through the jungle, wet and tired, until we got to the place near the coast where we waited for the smugglers to come pick us up.

The smugglers' boat didn't point north to Miami, but due west to Mexico. That's the latest change in tactic for Cuban-American people smugglers, says Miami customs and border protection spokesman Zach Mann.

Zach Mann: What we're seeing now is Cubans making their way to Mexico and then making their way across the southwest border into the United States.

Since 2005, there's been a major U.S. crackdown on smuggling through Florida — after smuggling numbers increased and several migrants died in chases with the coast guard.

Now, Mexico is the most popular route for Cubans entering the United States illegally. Last year, nearly 9,000 Cubans showed up at the U.S.-Mexico border. That's about triple the number that landed on Florida beaches.

Again, Zach Mann:

Mann: And now it's become an organized business, and there really . . . the only goal really is to make a profit.

The smugglers who picked Manuel up loaded 34 Cubans onto a luxury speedboat, netting about $375,000. The cost of a smuggling trip includes transportation right to the U.S.-Mexico border. Once Cubans get to the border, almost all are let across — even if they're economic migrants.

That's drastically different from U.S. policy towards other illegal immigrants, says sociologist Lizandro Perez.

Lizandro Perez: It's a sort of a contradiction. It says, "As long as you can escape, we'll welcome you. And essentially, if you do something sometimes risky that will bring you here, we will admit you."

Many Cubans are smuggled through the Mexican resort city of Cancun, where they're kept in safe houses and then shuttled north. Manuel was flown from Cancun to the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, an hour from Texas.

Manuel: When we got to the airport, they gave us the tickets. But the names on them weren't our names. They were fake.

But it didn't matter, because no one asked Manuel to show ID before he boarded the plane. That's because smugglers pay off officials in Mexico's immigration agency, the National Migration Institute, says Cancun's top federal prosecutor, Pedro Ramirez Violante.

Pedro Ramirez Violante (voice of interpreter): What is most alarming is that some of the cases that have arisen have come about with the aid of National Immigration Institute personnel. In this case, clearly people who are charged with guarding that these types of things don't happen.

Ramirez Violante says that without law enforcement information from the immigration agency, his office hasn't been able to prosecute a single smuggler of Cubans.

In Miami's Little Havana, where exile groups lobby fiercely to influence U.S. policy towards Cuba, few will say the smuggling's all bad.

Camila Ruiz is the spokesperson for the Cuban-American National Foundation:

Camila Ruiz: Though we understand it's illegal and we don't agree with that, we do understand the desperation that drives Cubans to try to find any kind of vehicle to get out of Cuba.

But once Cubans do get out illegally, they're barred from going back. Manuel hopes that some day, his parents will get visas to come see him. For now, he works plenty of overtime to send money to them, and repay the debt he and relatives racked up paying to get him to the U.S.

In Miami, I'm Lygia Navarro for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Funding for that story was provided by the Dick Goldensohn Fund at the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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