MIAMI — Just starting a five-year sentence for illegally re-entering the United States, George Lewis stared at the officers staring back at him at Miami's federal detention center and considered whether he'd risk getting on another smuggler's boat — a chance that soaring numbers of Caribbean islanders are taking — once he's deported again.
U.S. authorities deported Lewis following a four-year sentence for a felony drug conviction in May 2013 to the Bahamas, where he was born but lived only briefly. His Haitian mother brought him to Miami as an infant, and though he always considered the U.S. home, he never became a legal resident.
Just five months after he was deported, he got on a Bahamian smuggler's boat with over a dozen other people trying to sneak into Florida. It capsized and four Haitian women drowned. He and the others were rescued.
So would he dare make another attempt?
"Yeah," Lewis, 39, said with a sigh. But, he added, "I would put on a life vest next time."
A recent spike in Cubans attempting to reach the United States by sea has generated headlines. But the numbers of Haitians and other Caribbean islanders making similar journeys are up even more. And while federal law grants legal residency to Cubans reaching U.S. soil, anyone else can be detained and deported.
That law, the so-called wet foot-dry foot policy, and Coast Guard operations related to migrants remain unchanged even as Cuban and U.S. leaders say they are restoring diplomatic relations after more than 50 years.
"The Coast Guard strongly discourages attempts to illegally enter the country by taking to the sea. These trips are extremely dangerous. Individuals located at sea may be returned to Cuba," said Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma, spokesman for the Coast Guard's 7th District in Miami.
According to the Coast Guard, in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, U.S. authorities captured, intercepted or chased away at least 5,585 Haitians, 3,940 Cubans and hundreds from the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean countries attempting to sneak into the country.
That's at least 3,000 more migrants intercepted than in the previous fiscal year. It's also the highest number of Haitian migrants documented in five years and the highest number of Cubans recorded in six. It's unknown how many made it to U.S. shores without getting caught, or how many died trying.
More than 1,920 migrants — most of them Cuban or Haitian — have been intercepted so far in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The Coast Guard worries that number will only increase as news spreads about recent changes to the U.S. immigration system, including fast-tracking visas for some Haitians already approved to join family here and an executive order signed by President Barack Obama that would make millions already illegally in the U.S. eligible for work permits and protection from deportation.
"Any perceived changes to U.S. immigration policy can cause a spike in immigration because it gives a glimmer of hope," even to people not eligible under those changes, said Capt. Mark Fedor, chief of response for the Coast Guard's 7th District.
It's unclear why the numbers are jumping. Poverty and political repression have long caused Caribbean islanders to attempt the journey, and the outlook remains dismal for many. Coast Guard and U.S. immigration officials think another calm summer without many tropical storms and a recovering U.S. economy might have encouraged more to take to the sea. They also say the increased captures may reflect better law enforcement.
Smuggling operations in the region range from individual opportunists looking to use their vessels for extra money to sophisticated networks that may add drug shipments to their human cargo, said Carmen Pino, an official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami. Smugglers also lure people, especially in relatively new routes that send Haitians into the neighboring Dominican Republic to board boats bound for Puerto Rico.
Lewis said he easily talked his way onto a smuggler's boat with about a dozen Haitians and Jamaicans hoping to make it to Florida under the cover of darkness. He just struck up a conversation with some locals at a sports bar in Bimini, a small cluster of Bahamian islands 57 miles off Miami, where Lewis figured he could find a boat home.
"It was like getting a number from a girl. I just needed the right line," Lewis said in an interview in November. The failed trip cost $4,000.
After his rescue, U.S. authorities initially accused him of being a smuggler, partly because he was the only person on board with a phone, which he used to call 911 when the boat started taking on water. He scoffed at the allegation. He remembered that on the boat he was talking to a teenage Haitian girl and thinking about his mother's boat trip from Haiti to the Bahamas as a young girl, a crossing he never thought he would emulate. "I said, 'Run behind me when we hit land.'" He said. " I said, 'Follow me, I'll get you there.'"
Now Lewis finds himself back in the U.S. but not at home and facing another forced return to the Bahamas, a homeland he doesn't know and where the government considers Haitians who have migrated illegally and their children an unwanted burden.
Lewis knows he'd try to reach the U.S. again.
"It's not worth losing your life, but what life do you have when you have a whole country against you? I'm completely alienated from a country where I'm supposed to be from," Lewis said.
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