MIAMI -- While debate rages nationally about the steady flow of illegal immigrants into the United States, the people of one neighboring country, arriving in ever-growing numbers, still are playing by special rules.
For reasons historical and political, Cubans continue to enjoy a unique advantage among would-be Americans: Under the policy known as "wet foot/dry foot," those who manage to slip past law-enforcement agents and into the United States generally are allowed to stay. Those who are intercepted at sea are most often sent back.
As the numbers fleeing the Communist regime of Fidel Castro increase, the policy is drawing increasing criticism. More than 1,800 Cubans have been apprehended in the waters off Florida this fiscal year - 50 percent more than at the same point last year, when the number reached a 10-year high.
While television news directors in California can boast of the live cutaway to the high-speed highway chase, their Florida counterparts are pioneering real-time coverage of the high-seas migrant interdiction. Viewers here watched transfixed last fall as federal law-enforcement agents intercepted a boatload of Cubans on a run for the United States. Coast Guard and Homeland Security officers struggled with the 10 men for more than an hour, with a collision at one point knocking four of the migrants off their homemade craft and into the ocean.
The numbers remain far below those of the rafter crisis of 1994, when authorities picked up more than 37,000 balseros, and the total migration is far less than that seen on the U.S.-Mexican border. But the sharp increase, along with several incidents that have been widely publicized here - the televised interdiction last September among them - is fueling new debate over wet foot/dry foot.
"Basically, you're deciding who gets to freedom by whether it's high or low tide, or who can swim better, or who has a better flotation device," said Camila Ruiz, director of government relations for the Cuban-American National Foundation.
Others say the special treatment for Cubans is a no-longer-useful holdover from the Cold War that now serves only to encourage the illegal trips while leaving the United States vulnerable to sudden migrant flows and, possibly, the entry of terrorists.
"A special policy for people fleeing the Soviet empire may have made sense when there was a Soviet Union," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "Now Cuba is just one more loser Third World country that's inevitably going to create discontent and the desire on the part of its people to leave. And so it needs to be treated like everybody else."
The policy, developed by the Clinton administration following the rafter crisis and continued by the Bush administration, appears to have satisfied no one. But the White House has indicated no interest in changing the policy. In January, South Florida's three Cuban-American House members - Republicans Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen - asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to review the "immoral" 1995 U.S.-Cuba migration accord, calling the current process "an embarrassment to the United States."
U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez has lodged similar appeals, with little success.
"It's a reaction of, yes, there's no disagreement in many of the things that I'm saying, but yet, we're not sure that any other step would be better," said the Florida Republican, who was secretary of housing and urban development during President Bush's first term. "I admit it's a difficult issue to deal with."
Some exile leaders say a failure to address the issue could cost Republicans at the polls. Their support has been seen as pivotal to Bush's success in 2000 and 2004.
"Maybe they thought that Cubans were unconditional," said Ramon Saul Sanchez, president of the Miami-based Democracy Movement. "They will know the next election that we stand on defending the issues of the freedom of the Cuban people."
Officially, the United States encourages Cubans to migrate legally, through a lottery by which the country grants 20,000 visas a year. But in a report to Congress last fall, the State Department said Cuba had refused to allow a new registration for the lottery since 1998, was demanding exorbitant fees for the required medical examinations, and was imposing "nearly insurmountable" obstacles to the emigration of medical professionals, professors and teachers.
"It doesn't matter whether the United States issues a visa," said Luis Zuniga, director of the Miami-based Cuban Liberty Council. "It's Castro who determines whether that person will come or not."
The two governments have not met on migration since 2003. Since then, the number of Cubans attempting to reach the United States illegally has climbed to a 10-year high. The Coast Guard had picked up 1,400 at sea since Oct. 1, 2005, up from 1,089 at the same time last year. The Border Patrol, meanwhile, reported the successful landfall of 2,530 Cubans during fiscal 2005, up from 954 the previous year.
Observers note a variety of reasons for the increases: economic deprivation and political repression on the island, calm weather, and a growing reliance on sleek craft that law-enforcement officials call "go-fast" boats. A family in Florida may pay a smuggler up to $15,000 to bring a Cuban relative or friend on a speedy vessel.
"Cuba is a disaster," Zuniga said. "The only way to survive is either bending to the regime or getting away."
Dozens have died in the attempt. In the deadliest migrant disaster in years, 31 Cubans disappeared in August after their speedboat sank in the Straits of Florida. A 6-year-old boy drowned in October when the boat in which his parents were bringing him to the United States capsized south of Key West. Two elderly women died in November in a similar accident. In January, six Cubans died when their homemade craft broke apart on a jagged reef in the Bahamas.
Many here blame the lure of wet foot/dry foot, which they say turns the coastline into a goal line, leading law enforcement to adopt aggressive, potentially dangerous tactics to defend it.
"We take the risk of losing lives, of innocent life, because of those maneuvers," said Bay of Pigs veteran Jose Basulto, founder of the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue.
On that point, Basulto is in rare agreement with the Cuban government. Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba's national assembly, took the death of 6-year-old Julian Villasuso as an opportunity to blast U.S. policy.
"The death of this child is the responsibility of the United States, as are all the others," he told reporters in Havana, saying the U.S. policy requires emigres to risk their lives.
Before wet foot/dry foot, the United States generally accepted Cubans it picked up at sea. Now they get a shipboard interview to determine whether they are political refugees.
According to the U.S. government, most are not. Of the nearly 12,000 Cubans picked up from May 1995 to November 2005, more than 11,000 were found to be economic refugees and were returned to the country from which they departed, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security.
Just over 500 were found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture and were taken to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for an asylum interview and possible placement in a third country, the agency said. Fewer than 400 were brought directly to the United States.
Critics question the screening process.
"We don't believe that people who are intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard have a full and fair opportunity to make the case for asylum," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
Some say that all Cuban migrants are political refugees.
"No matter whether they came because of their stomach or because they wanted a better life or whatever, the conditions of Cuba are political in nature," Basulto said.
Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, argues historical precedent.
"I would argue that the minute there is a free and democratic Cuba, a Cuba under an elected government, then the Cuban migrant becomes just like the migrant from any other place," he said. "But Cubans - as I would argue for people fleeing North Korea - are a very special case."
Wayne Smith disagrees. The head of the U.S. interests section in Havana from 1979 to 1982, Smith was the senior U.S. official in Cuba during the Mariel boatlift of 1980. Castro announced that Cubans who wanted to leave the island could do so. About 125,000 arrived in Key West.
"The fact is, most of the Cubans who are coming, whether they're trying to run over by boat or they're coming with immigrant visas, they're coming for economic reasons," said Smith, now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "In other words, it's very similar to the situation you have on the Mexican border of people coming across looking for a job and a better life. If we control the flow on the Mexican border, I would suggest that we have to control it on the Straits of Florida as well."
In their letter to Chertoff, Reps. Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balarts called for an immediate review of the shipboard interview process. They gained a meeting with the administration but no commitments.
"This meeting was to hear the views of these representatives of the Florida Cuban-American community," White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri said after the trio sat down with officials from the departments of State and Homeland Security. "It does not signal any change in policy as it relates to Cuban or any other country's migrants."
Some in Congress warn that changing wet foot/dry foot now could lead to humanitarian disaster. Members of the bipartisan House Cuba Working Group expressed their concerns to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"If it is modified in any way that sends a signal to Cubans that they have increased likelihood of immigrating successfully if they come by illegal means, it is likely that large numbers of Cubans will attempt to come," wrote U.S. Reps. Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican, Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, and Bill Delahunt and Jim McGovern, both Massachusetts Democrats. "The result could very well be an international crisis that would consume large amounts of Coast Guard resources, and where many Cubans would risk and lose their lives at sea."
"It's a difficult thing," Flake said. "You have a situation where obviously, there's some who are escaping oppression and some who are escaping economic circumstances. I think we straddle it about the best we can right now."