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Cubans still trying to reach US by sea despite rule change

MIAMI - Cubans are still making risky sea journeys to the U.S. despite the end of a policy that allowed them to stay if they made it to American soil, officials said Monday.

The U.S. Coast Guard said it intercepted 65 Cubans trying to reach Florida or Puerto Rico since Jan. 12. That's when former President Barack Obama ended the so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy as part of the normalization of relations with Cuba.

The change means Cubans are no longer generally granted the right to stay upon reaching the U.S. Now they must have a visa or prove a credible fear of persecution like migrants from other countries.

The Coast Guard had no statistics Monday for the same period in 2016. The agency caught nearly 2,000 in the three months before the change, suggesting that far fewer are attempting what can be a dangerous voyage across the Florida Straits or through the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico.

"We discourage anyone from taking to the sea and attempting to reach U.S. soil illegally," said Capt. Aldante Vinciguerra, chief of response for the Coast Guard 7th District. "They are risking their lives with very little chance of success."

At least some may believe that the longstanding preferential immigration policy didn't really end in January or they want to test it, said Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

"Others are simply taking a risk to live in the U.S. illegally," Arcos said.

Cuba's government had long sought the repeal of the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, which it said encouraged its citizens to risk crossing by sea and contributed to a brain drain of professionals.

The Jan. 12 decision by Washington to end it was part of the restoration of relations that began in December 2014 and followed months of negotiations focused in part on getting Havana to agree to take back people who had arrived in the United States.

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