Javier Martínez boarded a plane at José Martí International Airport in Havana one day in October and left the island to seek a better future abroad.
After five days in Ecuador, the 24-year-old accounting graduate made his way to the Mexican border and on Dec. 30 arrived in Miami from Brownsville, Texas, where he crossed.
“There was no future in Cuba,” Martínez said. “I am a graduate in accounting and finance and I was working merely to buy food and some clothes, and that’s it.”
When a passport control officer in Texas admitted Martínez into the United States, he joined the ranks of a growing number of Cuban migrants leaving the island.
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More than 20,300 Cubans without visas sought to arrive or arrived in the United States during fiscal year 2014, according to figures compiled by el Nuevo Herald.
It is the highest number of unauthorized Cuban migrants to land on South Florida beaches, cross the Mexican border or board boats headed for Florida in 10 years, according to the figures collected by El Nuevo Herald since 2005.
According to the figures, the total Cuban migrant flow for 2014 — 20,384 — consists of 17,459 arrivals at the Mexican border, 814 landings on South Florida beaches and 2,111 interdictions at sea of migrants who sailed from Cuba for South Florida.
The figure of Cuban departures in 2014 is roughly equal to the 20,000 visas the U.S. government issues to Cubans annually under migration accords.
The previous large number of overall Cuban departures occurred in fiscal year 2007 when more than 18,200 Cuban migrants were interdicted, landed on South Florida beaches or crossed the Mexican border.
Cuban migrants continue to arrive in significant numbers. Figures from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) show that so far in fiscal year 2015 at least 6,489 Cuban migrants arrived via the Mexican border. Those arrivals were recorded between Oct.1 and Dec. 31, 2014. Fiscal years run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 the next year.
For years now, the largest number of Cuban migrants has streamed in through the Mexican border instead of the Florida Straits where improved Coast Guard patrolling has made it more difficult to get through to the coast.
While the figures seem big, they still pale when compared with the two large Cuban migrant exodus events last century.
In 1980, more than 125,000 Cubans arrived during the Mariel boatlift between April and September. More than 37,000 Cubans arrived during the 1994 rafter exodus.
While many Cubans cite a lack of future as the reason for leaving, in recent weeks some migrants have also cited as a key factor fear that the generous law that allows island refugees to gain admittance without visas may be coming to an end.
As soon as President Barack Obama on Dec. 17 ordered the restoration of normal diplomatic relations with Havana, fear spread among Cubans that the demise of the Cuban Adjust Act of 1966 was at hand.
That spurred many Cubans who had been contemplating departure to leave as soon as possible and those already on their way to the United States to hasten the journey.
“We were in Panama when we first heard about this and we started talking about this right away and we said to ourselves ‘We’ve better hurry or we’re going to get left out,’” recalled Luis Alberto, a 30-year-old Cuban migrant who arrived at the Mexican border with a group Jan. 3.
Siblings Victor and Mayelin Diéguez left their jobs in a Camagüey government supermarket and speeded up their departure as U.S. and Cuban officials met in Havana for the beginning of normalization talks.
“This is a preference that we have as Cubans and thus it’s natural for us to take advantage of it,” Victor said. “This is why we hurried up. I was thinking about coming in March but I hurried up thinking there would be a deal” between the governments.
Mayelin was more blunt in her analysis: “For Cubans who stayed behind to see the results of these negotiations will have to wait 15 or 20 years.”
The U.S. Coast Guard stepped up patrolling of the Florida Straits after it noticed an uptick in the Cuban migrant flow following the presidential announcement.
Coast Guard figures, which include interdictions, landings and sightings of Cuban migrants also indicate an increase in the overall Cuban migrant flow.
The spike in Cuban migrants in the Florida Straits prompted the Coast Guard to reaffirm that U.S. policy remains unchanged despite Obama’s announcement.
“The administration’s recent announcement regarding Cuba does not affect immigration policies including wet foot/dry foot or the Cuban Adjustment At — which only Congress can hange,” Rear Adm. Jake Korn, Coast Guard 7th District commander, said in a statemnent.
When U.S. envoys met with Cuban officials in Havana two weeks ago, they made it clear that no change in the Cuban Adjustment Act was planned.
“I would like to emphasize that a there is no plan to change U.S. policy” or the Cuban Adjustment Act, which can also be eliminated or substantially by Congress.
Coast Guard officials said Friday that they have seen a slowdown in the Cuban migrant flow in the last two weeks, after it became clear the Cuban Adjustment Act remained unchanged.
Nevertheless, Cuban officials involved in negotiations with the United States said U.S. officials have some flexibility in how they interpret and implement provisions of the law.
Ira Kurzban, a Miami immigration lawyer considered a national authority on immigration law, said U.S. officials could interpret the Cuban Adjustment Act in a more restrictive way perhaps making it more difficult for Cuban migrants to qualify.
“They cannot alter the statute,” he said. “But they can interpret it more restrictively.”
As Cuban and American officials met in Havana, Miami-Dade Commissioners passed a resolution asking Congress to review the Cuban Adjustment Act and perhaps limit it to refugees from political persecution.
Ramón Saúl Sánchez, leader of the Democracy Movement, said the commission’s move was ‘imprudent” because it could spur an exodus.
“That causes deaths,” he said. “That causes people to die and go missing in the Straits of Florida, just because of politicking.”