Cuba: Cubans find backdoor route to US soil: "Cubans find backdoor route to US soil
Sunday, July 2, 2006 · Last updated 8:17 a.m. PT
Cubans find backdoor route to U.S. soil By ANDREW SELSKY ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
MONA ISLAND, Puerto Rico -- Taking the back door into the United States, droves of Cubans are crossing some of the world's stormiest seas and clambering onto this rugged speck of an island belonging to Puerto Rico.
Forsaking the heavily patrolled Florida Straits, Cubans are increasingly reaching the U.S. by flying to the Dominican Republic and traveling about 40 miles by boat to Mona Island.
In fiscal year 2001, no more than five Cubans landed on Mona. But in the past nine months 579 have arrived, Jorge Diaz, a senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent, said Tuesday.
Under the general U.S. 'wet-foot, dry-foot' policy, Cubans who reach U.S. soil get to stay, while those caught at sea are sent back. A Puerto Rican nature reserve inhabited by a few park rangers and lots of iguanas, Mona Island, like the rest of Puerto Rico, is as much a part of the U.S. as Miami is.
On a recent morning, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, accompanied by an Associated Press reporter and photographer, sailed 45 miles from mainland Puerto Rico to Mona to pick up two groups of Cubans. Approached from the east, among leaping dolphins, the 6.7 square-mile island looks forbidding, rising in sulfur-colored cliffs. But on the western side, facing the Dominican Republic, a white-sand beach beckons.
Eight Cubans sat at a picnic table under a palm tree, having spent 12 hours in a smuggler's open-air boat. Arriving just past midnight, they spent the rest of the night on mattresses provided by the island's rangers.
They said they were scared they would either drown or be caught by authorities during the journey.
'We prayed for 12 hours, aloud or silent, but we prayed,' said Richard Echevarria, his green T-shirt shirt stiff "