In 2007, the number of Cubans caught at sea while trying to enter the United States surged to a 13-year high. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports more Cubans are leaving the island illegally because of obstacles to legal migration and political uncertainties in Cuba.
Coast Guard statistics show Cuban interdictions in 2007 rose nearly 40 percent over 2006 levels to more than 3,100 people. The number is the highest since 1994, when more than 37,000 Cubans were caught at sea trying to flee economic conditions on the island.
Despite the efforts of Coast Guard and border agents, many Cuban migrants still reach U.S. soil and often are allowed to apply for legal residency. Officials say some of those avoid the heavily patrolled waters near Florida and cross into Mexico, where they enter the United States by land.
The difference between Cubans and other undocumented migrants is that Cubans who reach U.S. soil can apply for legal residency, under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
Zachary Mann, a special agent for Customs and Border Protection in Miami, says many Cubans who arrive undetected often seek out U.S. authorities.
"If they make it to shore, they will flag down the first law enforcement vehicle they find. They want to be discovered, they want to begin the process of Cuban adjustment in the United States," he said.
The charity Church World Service helps Cubans who have arrived legally or illegally in the country, helping them file residency applications, contact family in the United States and find jobs.
The director of the group's Miami office, Virginia Coto, says there has been an increase in the number of illegal Cuban migrants, partly due to recent problems in legal migration.
"The pattern has always been that if people are not arriving through orderly and safe and legal means, then they will find a way to get here," she noted.
This year, U.S. officials were not able to issue the 20,000 travel documents they offer each year to Cubans seeking to enter the country. Washington has blamed Cuba's government for placing constraints on the system, such as failing to issue exit visas for Cubans.
Coto says difficult conditions in Cuba are the main reason people want to leave the island.
"They are coming for the same reason they have always come. It is a repressed country, it is a Communist country, and there are no freedoms there," she added.
Coto says political developments in Cuba also influence illegal migration. She says some 400 Cubans arrived on a single weekend earlier this year following rumors that ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro had died.
The temporary transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raul, last year also has raised questions about a possible impact on Cuban migration.
Andy Gomez, senior fellow for the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, says recent migrants report the transfer has done little to ease concerns.
"We know there is a great deal of dissatisfaction among the Cuban population in terms of what hopes, if any, Raul Castro can bring them," he said.
Gomez says many Cubans do not expect officials to relax tight political restrictions in the coming years, but they are pressing for economic reforms to open up activity on the island. Gomez says Cuba's government must consider changes, such as expanding private farms, to give young Cubans a reason to stay.