FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- More Cubans were stopped at sea while trying to reach the U.S. in the past year than at any time since the chaotic rafter crisis of 1994, according to figures from the U.S. Coast Guard.
The 4,462 Cubans picked up on the ocean -- heading to South Florida in makeshift vessels often made from wood, inner tubes or polystyrene -- and returned to the island is more than twice the number stopped last year.
"This is a pattern that became noticeable last January and February and appears sustainable," said anthropologist Jorge Duany, who studies Cuban migration at Florida International University.
"It suggests that the future exodus will be quite massive and it is going to continue unabated," Duany said.
The numbers indicate the strength of a migration surge that began in December, when the U.S. announced efforts to normalize relations with the communist island, according to experts.
Experts also say that many on the island who want to come to the U.S. fear that America's renewed relationship with Cuba would make getting a visa more difficult, or end the favorable treatment granted to Cuban immigrants.
Under the federal Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, all Cubans have the right to obtain legal residency regardless of whether they arrive in the U.S. legally or illegally. The "wet foot-dry foot" policy, outlined in a 1995 accord, says that any Cuban intercepted at sea would be sent back to Cuba, while those who make it to U.S. soil are allowed to stay.
The number of migrants stopped at sea does not necessarily serve as a precise index of how many Cubans are leaving the island, Duany said. Many Cubans without visas now enter the U.S. through Mexico after traveling overland from Central and South America.
Others arrive by sea undetected.
The Coast Guard says it has stepped up patrols by boats and aircraft in the waters between Florida and the island. "We're absolutely noticing the numbers (of migrants), and we have to respond to that to protect our borders," said Petty Officer Mark Barney, a Miami spokesman.
U.S. Coast Guard officials continue to caution that sea voyages, especially in vessels referred to as "rustics" or "chugs," are perilous.
"U.S. immigration policies have not changed and we urge people not to take to the ocean in very unseaworthy vessels. It is illegal and extremely dangerous," Capt. Mark Fedor, the chief of response for the Coast Guard's 7th District, said in a statement. "Once migrants are interdicted at sea, they will be returned to their country of origin."
The crews of the Coast Guard Cutters Kathleen Moore and Marlin returned 85 Cubans to the island on Sunday. All had been picked up at sea in seven separate interdictions aboard various small vessels, officials said.
Aboard the cutters the migrants receive food, water, shelter and basic medical attention before they are dropped off at Bahia de Cabanas, Cuba.
Still, the flow of those hoping for a new life in the U.S. continues. In October, the first month of the federal government's 2016 fiscal year, 433 Cubans were stopped at sea. That number is higher than any of the previous 12 months.
If that rate continues, the fiscal 2016 total would shatter the total from 2015.
In 1994, faced with a bleak economy and demonstrations in the streets of Havana, then-President Fidel Castro told his security forces not to stop any Cubans who wanted to leave the island. Beginning in August of that year, more than 38,000 Cuban "balseros" were picked up at sea, according to Coast Guard figures.
Many were held for months in a sprawling tent city at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The crisis ended with renewed migration accords in which the U.S. and Cuban governments agreed that all future rafters stopped at sea would be returned to Cuba and required to apply for a visa at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.