The number of Cuban nationals landing in the U.S. Virgin Islands tripled from 2005 to 2006 and federal officials are keeping a close eye on the trend.
“It’s an area of concern, not only in the U.S.V.I. but in Puerto Rico,” said Ivan Ortiz, public affairs spokesperson for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
While federal interdiction efforts in the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic on Hispaniola and Puerto Rico have had a major impact on human smuggling between those two islands, a growing number of Cuban nationals have joined the flow of illegal immigrants through the U.S.V.I.
“The resources in this area have definitely had an impact,” said Ortiz of the increased federal effort out of Puerto Rico to crack down on human smuggling across the Mona Passage.
Under the federal government’s “wet foot-dry foot” policy, Cuban nationals who reach U.S. soil are allowed to apply for admission while those who are interdicted at sea are repatriated.
The Cuban policy has created dramatic scenes off Florida where U.S. Coast Guard and Border Patrol officials play a cat-and-mouse game to prevent immigrants from reaching shore.
Increase of Cubans
In the federal government’s Fiscal Year 2006, which ended in October, a total of 227 Cubans were reported entering the U.S.V.I., up three-fold from the FY 2005 total of 72, according to ICE statistics.
“The number of Cubans arriving has increased significantly and it is of concern,” said ICE’s Ortiz.
In FY 2004, ICE reported 39 Cuban nationals in the U.S.V.I. illegal immigrants, which was a decrease from the FY 2003 total of 54. The FY 2002 total had swelled to 148 from a FY 2001 total of 11, according to Ortiz.
Cuban nationals may have found any easy way to reach U.S. soil as they join the ebb and flow of illegal immigrants through the territory, but the smugglers of the human cargoes are still subject to prosecution, according to federal officials.
“Maybe the customer isn’t subject to prosecution, but the person who brings them in can be criminally charged,” Ortiz said.
The increasing number of Cuban citizens among the illegal immigrants are being granted asylum after entering the U.S. illegally through the U.S. Virgin Islands, but federal officials are watching the trend carefully.
“I think it’s too early to tell if that’s going to be a trend,” said U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Public Relations official Ricardo Castrodad of the increase in Cuban nationals among the recent influx of illegal immigrants in the territory.
Easy Landfall in USVI
The porous U.S.V.I. border allows relatively easy landfall for the aliens and makes it easier for the smugglers of the human cargoes to evade apprehension, but they are still subject to arrest and prosecution, according to authorities.
“Every case can be different,” Castrodad said of the prosecution of the smugglers bringing in the human cargoes. The smugglers will be prosecuted regardless of whether the illegal immigrants were prosecuted for entry or granted asylum, according to the USCG spokesperson.
“It doesn’t mean you’re going to find the operators,” Castrodad added.
Federal authorities have been very successful in interdictions in Mona Passage, according to the USCG spokesperson.
The smugglers can only be prosecuted “if (officials) are able to tie them to the migrants,” Castrodad admitted.
“Authorities can bring them up on charges of smuggling,” the federal official said. “There are a lot of options for the U.S. Attorney.”
“Prosecution has not been very successful,” admitted Ortiz of ICE.