Number of illegal Cubans coming to Florida is on the rise

When Carlos Velazquez arrived here in 1994 on a home-made boat fashioned from intertubes, he was one man in a wave of 38,560 Cubans who took part in a rag-tag rafter exodus.

Earlier this month, his son, also named Carlos, made the journey. But he, his wife Olga and their 7-year-old son Maikol came by jet and presented papers documenting their status as entrants under the family reunification program.

"It took four years to do the paperwork," said Velazquez, 34, who is now sharing space in his father's tight, two-bedroom trailer in Miramar.

While he and up to 20,000 other Cubans legally entered the U.S. in the last year, an estimated 10,000 came in without papers in what U.S. officials and resettlement agencies say is a surge prompted by a poor island economy and disillusionment over the future.

Although a majority slip easily into the huge Cuban-American community in Miami-Dade County, many others follow the Velazquez family's experience and put down roots in Broward or Palm Beach counties.

Church World Service, one of two agencies with federal contracts to resettle Cubans here, this year opened an office in Fort Lauderdale and also sees Cuban clients in a Delray Beach office that serves Haitians.

In the fiscal year that ended in September, the U.S. Coast Guard stopped 1,275 Cubans heading for the U.S. in boats, and another 97 in the following month and a half. Those are the biggest totals since 2008.

But thousands of others are making their way into the U.S. by crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders, according to Adrian Duranona, a director of Church World Service. Some of those crossing the Southwest border have endured a grueling 1,700-mile overland journey through six countries that began in Ecuador, a South American nation that has taken in some 100,000 Cubans since 2008.

"It may be under the radar, but as we know, Cubans arrive all the time," said Duranona.

Duranona said he thinks the number of Cubans entering the country illegally, or overstaying visitors' visas, may increase if the Cuban government follows through on a promise to loosen restrictions on letting its citizens leave the country for visits abroad.

Andy Gomez, a Cuban-born professor at the University of Miami, said that increases in Cuban arrivals could prompt the Obama Administration to revamp the policy that gives arrivals an automatic pathway to residency.

"It would not surprise me," said Gomez, "if the administration tackles this along with immigration reform."

"The influx of Cubans into the U.S. is increasing," said Ernesto Cuesta, associate director of Cuban-Haitian programs for the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops in Miami. "The young people we are seeing are desperate. There is no hope in Cuba."

However, there is hope in La Yuma – Cuban slang for the U.S. – and that, along with family ties, is what has kept the northward flow from the island strong and steady for more than half a century.

In Broward, Miramar is the residential heart of the Cuban community, and within that heart the trailer park called Haven Lake Estates keeps a blue-collar Latin beat.

In preparation for the arrival of his son and his family, the senior Velazquez, 59, a fork lift operator at a cement plant, punched a hole in the side of his peach-colored trailer and started to enclose a patio that within a few weeks will become another bedroom.

As he waits for the papers that will allow him to get a Social Security card, a work permit and a driver's license, the younger Velazquez works on the addition, talks to Olga about parlaying his experience as a waiter into a restaurant job, and watches as his son, as if by osmosis, picks up computer skills and English phrases.

"Everything is different here," said Velazquez, who lived in Guanabacoa, a colonial town east of Havana. "Access to computers, eating good pork and beef, even the smell. Everything smells clean here."

To ease the transition, the couple also attends orientation classes at Church World Service offices in Doral, where job developer Erasmo Gomez recently explained how to use a checking account, the federal requirement to pay income tax, and the dangers of a credit card.

Cuban arrivals also get instruction on other routine tasks: searching the want ads for a job, composing a resume, and sitting through a job interview.

"In Cuba they don't know anything about that," said Gomez, 31, a onetime Havana social worker who arrived two and half years ago to join his sister in Miramar.

Gomez, who now lives in Pembroke Pines, said he tells newly-arrived Cubans the best thing they can do to better themselves here is to learn English. "Names, numbers, some basic English, because it's the basis of the social, legal and medical system," he said.

But Gomez knows that in Miami-Dade, and increasingly in Broward and Palm Beach counties, it is very easy to live exclusively within a Spanish-language bubble.

Velazquez knows that, too. In addition to the Cuban-dominated neighborhood in which he lives, at least 10 friends from

his old neighborhood preceeded him to South Florida. Olga has several relatives here.

All provide possible connections to work but Velazquez says he agrees about the importance of learning English.

"I want to do well here," he said. "So Spanish is fine for here. But if I get a chance for a good job in another state, we will go. I will take English classes as soon as I can."

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