After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Cubans were welcomed into the United States as refugees. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 provided that Cuban migrants would be paroled into the United States and could adjust to lawful permanent residency after one year. (“Parole” in immigration law means that the alien has been granted temporary permission to enter and be present in the United States.) In 1994, U.S. policy was challenged by a new exodus of Cuban migrants known as balseros. These migrants embarked on rafts and rustic vessels not suited to long-distance journeys, but the balseros were motived more by departure than arrival to the shores of the United States. In order to gain residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act, the balseros needed only to be rescued at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard.[1]

The Cuban Migration Agreement of 1995, referred to informally as the wet foot/dry foot policy, modified these conditions. Cubans who are found at sea (wet foot) are now returned to Cuba, and Cubans who reach U.S. territory (dry foot) are permitted to stay. Migration by improvised vessel thus became more or less obsolete because the likely result is interdiction at sea and repatriation. It still continues on a small scale—there were departures and interdictions in 2010 and 2011—but the change in policy has fostered a transition from do-it-yourself migration to organized smuggling.[2]

In July, 2010, a CBP surveillance aircraft spotted a Cuban man in a seven-foot boat made of styrofoam. The man, severely dehydrated, had been lost at sea for 25 days. He was rescued by the Coast Guard. Courtesy of U. S. Customs and Border Protection.

The transport of migrants by speedboat and other vessels from Cuba to Florida was the most prominent means of organized smuggling, but intensive border-enforcement patrols in the Florida Straits eventually resulted in displacement to other routes. Currently Cubans migrate through Mexico to the southwest border of the United States (after documented entry into Mexican or by undocumented boat migration from Cuba to the Yucatan ); and through the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico (after documented entry into the Dominican Republic or via documented or undocumented travel into and through Haiti). Cubans are also smuggled to less populated and less patrolled areas along Florida’s west coast.[3]

Another means of Cuban entry into the United States began with the 2007 appeal known as the “Matter of Vazquez,” which validated for U.S. immigration purposes the birth documents issued by Cuban consulates abroad. After the 1959 revolution some fifty thousand Cubans settled in Venezuela, for example, and their children and grandchildren are Venezuelan citizens. These Venezuelans of Cuban ancestry can acquire Cuban citizenship at a consulate through the lineage of a parent. A newly naturalized Venezuelan-Cuban can then enter the United States on a Venezuelan passport with a nonimmigrant visa, later present the Cuban citizenship document with a petition to adjust status, and eventually gain lawful permanent residency. The same occurs with Cubans from other Latin American countries.[4]

Cubans who migrate through the Dominican Republic enter the United States in Puerto Rico, which as a U.S. commonwealth provides the benefits of the Cuban Adjustment Act and the wet foot/dry foot policy. The Mona Passage en route to Puerto Rico is well patrolled but Cuban migrants (unlike Dominicans) need only reach Mona or Monito Islands, which are about midway in the crossing. These small islands are possessions of Puerto Rico and therefore of the United States, so landings on them qualify Cubans for parole and eventual residency. When Cuban migrants are located on Mona or Monito, they are transferred by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or the Coast Guard to the Puerto Rican main island, given a Notice to Appear (which commences the process for legal residence), and released.

Cuban migrants on Mona Island being processed for transfer by helicopter to the main island of Puerto Rico. Courtesy of U. S. Customs and Border Protection.

The Dominican smugglers of Cuban migrants operate from the southeast coast of the Dominican Republic and generally use well-powered pleasure craft, some of which are stolen from resorts. In a series of 2010 landings, yolas were used. The smuggling of Cubans is lucrative because the fees are high, and the smugglers tend to be professional, organized, and (unlike most yola captains) little concerned with migrant safety.

Mona Island is dry and rugged, has few beaches for access, and is uninhabited with the exception of park rangers—from Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources—in residence on ten-day shifts. The presence of the rangers is fortuitous for migrants, because it provides a means of contact with U.S. authorities and, consequently, of transport to the main island. My informants in CBP and the Coast Guard suggest that some of the rangers on Mona Island supplement their low salaries by informing smugglers of opportune moments to land. Other rangers cooperate with law-enforcement authorities by reporting imminent landings.

Monito Island is about three miles northwest of Mona and is tiny, barren, uninhabited, and beachless. As a CBP pilot explained, “Monito is a rock, maybe the size of half a football field. And it sticks straight out of the water. The sides of this rock are sheer cliffs that are maybe twenty or thirty feet high.” Landing on Monito requires approaching a low opening in a cliff face and then waiting for swells to lift the boat. “Any time the wave goes up, people get out,” as a Border Patrol agent put it. Disembarking is impossible or highly dangerous if the surf is rough. After jumping from the boat to the cliff the migrants must make a steep climb on jagged rocks, often in the darkness of night, to reach the flat surface at the top of the island.

The migrants then find themselves in a precarious situation, without food, water, shelter, or a means to call for help. Their fate depends on being located and rescued. Some migrants come prepared—with red shirts and flares, for example—and others wave their hands at passing boats and aircraft. Coast Guard operation summaries indicate that Cubans on Monito have been located recently by surveillance aircraft, Coast Guard cutters, fishermen, and searches initiated after phone calls from concerned family members in Florida.Helicopter rescue from Monito is dangerous, because the island is a sanctuary of huge seabirds that get caught in the blades and cause accidents. Migrants are sometimes transferred by small Coast Guard helicopters to Mona Island, and then in turn to Aguadilla, on the main island of Puerto Rico, by a CBP Blackhawk helicopter. In May, 2010 a Coast Guard cutter’s small boat retrieved the migrants.[5]

Landings on Mona Island were heavy in 2005 (52 events, 498 migrants) and 2006 (85 events, 780 migrants).Beginning in March, 2006, Border Patrol and the Coast Guard in Puerto Rico responded with three iterations of Operation Monkey Wrench. This collaboration gradually evolved into the enforcement consortium known as the Caribbean Border Interagency Group. Monkey Wrench operations included land-based radar, forward deployment of CBP speed boats, air assets including Blackhawk helicopters, collaboration with the Puerto Rican Police’s Fuerzas Unidas de Rápida Acción (FURA), and dedicated missions of Coast Guard cutters.[6]

As explained by a cutter captain, cutters were stationed at Mona Island around the clock. A mooring buoy was situated off shore to save fuel, and captains tried various strategies to prevent landings: turning lights on or off, putting crew on the beach, using the cutter’s small boat. When landings occurred, the cutter picked up the migrants and informally interviewed them en route to the port in Mayaguez: did you see us, did you hear us, how did you get around us? In many cases the smugglers were aware of the cutter’s presence but surreptitiously evaded it. Mona does not have many beaches—it is mostly cliffs—and the landing sites are on the southern side of the island. The smugglers who were most easily caught were those who were less familiar with the island and delayed in locating a beach. “If a boat was on north side, it was rookie—he didn’t know what he was doing.”

After Monkey Wrench the smuggling of Cubans to Mona Island was minimal but in 2010 it began to increase, together with the use of Monito as a common landing site. In August, 2010, for example, Cuban migrants were smuggled through Bayahibe, where hundreds of tourists come and go daily for excursions to Isla Saona. The Cubans departed with the masses of tourists but rather than returning with them waited in hiding for nocturnal transport to Mona Island. In July, 2011 there were two Mona landings in a single day, and biometrics revealed that one of the migrants was a Dominican posing as a Cuban.

According to Department of Homeland Security statistics compiled by the Miami Herald, a three-year downward trend was reversed in 2011 when illegal Cuban maritime migration (in all sectors, collectively) increased by more than 100 percent. After a peak in 2007 (19,710 migrants), there was steady and rapid decline to 831 migrants in fiscal year 2010. In fiscal year 2011, however, about 1,700 Cuban migrants landed on U.S. shores or were interdicted at sea.[7]

The smugglers of Cubans are determined to evade capture. Unlike yola captains, who are well camouflaged by posing as migrants, the Dominican smugglers of Cubans are readily identifiable. Cuban migrants carry identification documents—through these they gain their immigration privileges—and smugglers are readily incriminated by their lack of such documents. When interdiction is imminent, smugglers sometimes push migrants overboard to facilitate flight by occupying a cutter with rescue. Significant back-up resources often foil these attempts. In August, 2010 two Dominican smugglers approached Mona Island on a twenty-foot boat with nine Cuban migrants. The smugglers detected air surveillance, dropped the migrants in the water, and fled at high speed. Border-enforcement agencies responded with a Coast Guard cutter, a rescue helicopter, and a Blackhawk helicopter, in addition to the aircraft circling above. The migrants made it safely to shore, and the two smugglers were arrested.

In such cases, when smugglers are caught on return without migrants in the boat, the arrest and prosecution are done under 18 U.S.C. § 2237, which was established by Congress in 2006. This felony offence provides penalties for failing to heave to (disobeying a lawful order to stop), for interfering with boarding or other law-enforcement action, and for providing materially false information during a vessel boarding. It is particularly useful in the context of Cuban-migrant smuggling, in which flight is common and interception often occurs after migrants have been landed or thrown overboard. (Dominican migrants rarely flee from authorities, in part because yolas are underpowered and slow.) In addition, once Cubans make landfall and are paroled into the United States, they are reluctant to serve as material witnesses in smuggling trials. “They want to get to Miami, not hang out in Puerto Rico waiting to testify,” as a cutter captain put it.[8]


[1] For text, documents, and imagery on the balseros’ exodus, see “The Cuban Rafter Phenomenon: A Unique Sea Exodus,” See also the film by Carlos Bosch and José María Doménech, Balseros (Barcelona: Bausan Films & TVC, 2002).

[2] For a brief policy summary, see Ruth Ellen Wasem, “Cuban Migration Policy and Issues” (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2007). See also Department of Homeland Security, “Testimony of Rear Admiral Wayne E. Justice, Assistant Commandant for Capabilities, Before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, ‘Overview of Coast Guard Drug and Migrant Interdiction’” (Washington, D.C.: March 11, 2009), 8: “We estimate that the rate of success for a raft or rustica is never better than 50 percent and generally 25 percent or lower. By comparison, the rate of success for a go-fast vessel operated by a migrant smuggling organization is estimated at 70 percent.” In another report to Congress on the same day, the raft or rustica percentage is the same but “the rate of success for a go-fast vessel is estimated at 85 percent.” See Department of Homeland Security, United States Coast Guard, “Written Statement of RADM Joseph Nimmich, Director, Joint Interagency Task Force South, Before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation (Regarding Coast Guard Drug and Migrant Interdiction)” (Washington, D.C.: March 11, 2009), 61.

[3] See Robert B. Watts, “Caribbean Maritime Migration: Challenges for the New Millennium,” Homeland Security Affairs, Supplement 2 (2008): 6: “Coast Guard patrols were so active in the Florida Straits during 2006 and 2007 that the use of new routes for Cuban smuggling, particularly the Dominican Republic and Mexico, increased over tenfold.” Later there was a steep decline in the number of Cubans arriving through Mexico: almost 20,000 at a peak in FY 2007 and fewer than 7,000 in FY 2010. See Alfonso Chardy and Juan Tamayo, “Exodus of Cubans Slowing,” Miami Herald (October 5, 2010). Regarding the west coast of Florida, see David Kyle and Marc Scarcelli. “Migrant Smuggling and the Violence Question: Evolving Illicit Migration Markets for Cuban and Haitian Refugees,” Crime, Law and Social Change 52 (2009): 304.

[4] Joel Millman, “U.S. Offers Refuge to Cubans, Even if They’re Not From Cuba,” Wall Street Journal (April 7, 2009). For pertinent documents, see the following: ; and .

[5] U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Juan Operational Summaries for February 26, 2010; May 21, 2010; and May 22, 2010. Acquired through Freedom of Information Act request number SSJ FOIA 1020; submitted on June 29, 2010; documents provided on July 19, 2010.

[6] The statistics are from Department of Homeland Security, “CBIG: Caribbean Border Agency [sic] Group,” unpublished PowerPoint presentation, 2009. Provided by CBP, San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Mona Island landing events: 2005, 52 events, 498 migrants; 2006, 85 events, 780 migrants; 2007, 25 events, 294 migrants; 2008, 6 events, 109 migrants.

[7] Alfonso Chardy and Juan O. Tamayo, “Illegal Cuban Migration, After Years of Decline, Is Up Again,” Miami Herald (October 9, 2011).

[8] In the Florida Straits, suspected smugglers of Cuban migrants “routinely claim that they were on a legitimate voyage for fishing or pleasure and that they rescued the migrants when they found them adrift at sea.” And “migrants rarely are willing to identify and testify against the smugglers.” If they are willing, they must be brought ashore and are then ineligible for return to Cuba. A migrant who first agrees might later refuse. “A prosecutor is then left without a material witness and the Cuban migrant is allowed to remain in the United States.” Donald L. Brown, “Crooked Straits: Maritime Smuggling of Humans from Cuba to the United States.” University of Miami Inter-American Law Review 33/2-3 (2002): 287-288.