MIAMI (AP) – Thirteen Cuban migrants who arrived early Tuesday in the Florida Keys aboard a homemade boat are the first to land on U.S. soil since Fidel Castro died, U.S. authorities said, adding they're on alert amid an ongoing surge in sea crossings.
The migrants were all in good health after arriving on Big Pine Key around 4 a.m., Monroe County Sheriff's Office Deputy Becky Herrin said in an email.
The 10 men and three women are to be processed and released to an organization that helps refugees resettle in the United States, according to Norma Morfa, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman.
It's "the first known maritime smuggling event" from Cuba since Castro's death on Nov. 25, Morfa said in an email.
Under the so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy, Cubans reaching U.S. soil generally can remain.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, fears about that policy potentially ending have been driving a surge in the numbers of Cubans attempting to reach U.S. soil since December 2014, when a resumption of U.S. diplomatic relations with Havana was announced.
Castro's death and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's hard-line stance on curbing illegal immigration have added to the uncertainty over that policy, which was enacted by the U.S. government after an exodus of Cuban rafters in 1994.
Coast Guard officials in Miami say it's too soon to tell whether the longtime Cuban leader's death has triggered an additional increase. Last week, 38 Cubans intercepted at sea by U.S. authorities were returned home.
"We're constantly patrolling the seas," said Chief Nick Cangemi of the Coast Guard's 7th District.
As of Dec. 1, 827 Cubans have attempted to reach U.S. soil by sea since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, according to Coast Guard statistics. Over 7,400 Cubans were intercepted in the Florida Straits, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 — a 60 percent increase from 4,473 tallied the previous year.