Nov. 26, 2012 -- The number of Cuban defectors coming to the United States is on the rise.
Nearly 1,300 Cuban immigrants were detained by the U.S. Coast Guard in the 2012 fiscal year. In contrast, only 422 Cubans were detained in 2010. Officials say that more Cubans are also crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders and arriving by air from countries like Spain and Ecuador, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported.
The increase in Cuban defectors coincides with the introduction of a new law on the island which will ease punishments for those who left without authorization and now want to return to visit the island.
The new policy, set to be implemented in January, will make re-entry easier for those who have defected after 1990. In the past, even famous Cuban musicians, actors, and athletes have been denied permission to return to their homeland, including famed salsa singer Celia Cruz who frequently lamented her inability to return home.
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami, said that Cubans have more flexibility in getting out of Cuba now.
"They're doing away with the requirements, except buying passports," he said in an interview with ABC/Univision News.
Suchlicki added that embassies of Latin American countries in Cuba, particularly Ecuador, are providing a significant number of visas for Cubans to fly to those countries and then make their way to the United States, often by crossing the border through Mexico.
There is no exact count of the number of Cuban defectors arriving each year, but the Sun Sentinel reports that various agencies estimate that it may be as high as 10,000.
Just shy of 2 million Cubans lived in the United States in 2010, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The Pew Hispanic Center notes that Cubans were about 3.7 percent of the country's Hispanic population in 2010. Mexicans made up about 65 percent.
Cubans have higher education levels than U.S. Hispanics overall, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. About a quarter of Cubans age 25 and older have a bachelor's degree compared with 13 percent of U.S. Hispanics. Cubans also earn more on average than other U.S. Hispanics, and they are older and less likely to have children than other Hispanics and the U.S. general population. Nearly seven in 10 Cubans live in Florida. Historically, many defectors from Cuba have been part of the professional elite who fled the island when Fidel Castro came to power. Still others, including the thousands of marielitos who came to the United States in the 1980 Mariel boatlift were lower or middle class Cubans.
Under the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, Cubans without papers are permitted to stay in the country once they arrive. About 20,000 Cubans per year are also granted visas to come to the United States.
The current jump in unauthorized immigration from Cuba is the latest in a long history of fluctuating immigration levels from the island. Between 2005 and 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard detained more than 2,000 unauthorized Cuban immigrants each year. In 2009, there was a major drop off in illegal immigration from Cuba, which coincided with the economic downturn in the United States.
But that number is climbing again.
According to Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, the increase could be the result of a number of factors.
"It's due to the continuing economic downturn in Cuba, which is leading a large number of people outside of Cuba," he said during an interview with ABC/Univision News. "Short-term reasons for this rise could be that there are a number of people who are unemployed and looking for a job in the small private sector in Cuba who were laid off by the government and have doubts about future prospects."
Duany added that Fidel Castro's impending death and uncertainty about the "so-called transition" may be leading some Cubans to leave the country, as well as changes in Cuban regulations that will take effect in January.
While Cubans have crossed into the United States through Mexico for years, Duany said Cubans have recently sought entrance through Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. From there they pass into Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.
Cubans with relatives in the United States have a better chance at getting visas to enter legally, leaving those without family in the country searching for other means of entry.
"In general, those who come without authorization are the ones without immediate relatives in the United States," Duany said, "That's the way the law is set up, so those people have a better chance. But many people don't have mothers or brothers in the U.S. and they're forced to use other means, and typically they will cross the border without authorization."
"There is disappointment with the changes Raúl Castro is introducing and the perception that it's not going to go anywhere and that Cuba is going to be a disaster," Suchlicki said. "There is a tremendous disillusionment and people want to get out of Cuba."