United States authorities said on Jan. 16 that 26 Cubans came ashore near Newfound Harbor in the Florida Keys in what authorities described as a possible migrant-smuggling operation.
Federal officials said the refugees, who arrived Jan. 13, were taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol during an operation that also involved the U.S. Coast Guard.
The fact that the Border Patrol handled the arrival means the migrants will be able to stay in the United States under the “Wet Foot-Dry Foot” policy, which allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to stay while those intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba.
Cubans who reach U.S. soil, even without immigration papers, can apply for permanent residence after spending more than a year in the country, officials said.
Coast Guard officials said the group is the largest to reach the Florida coast so far in the New Year.
Coast Guard figures show that in the past four months at least 316 Cuban migrants have been intercepted in the Florida Straits.
Officials said the latest arrival of more than two dozen might indicate that the flow of Cuban migrants is increasing.
During fiscal year 2010, 422 Cuban migrants were intercepted by Coast Guard cutters and 409 reached land.
But the number of arrivals and interceptions increased in fiscal year 2011, which ended on Sept. 30, to 985 intercepted at sea and 696 reaching land, the Coast Guard said.
Most Cuban migrants arrive across the Mexican border. In fiscal year 2011, more than 5,000 Cubans arrived at the border, a number similar to that of fiscal 2010, officials said.
The Coast Guard said it sent two vessels to the area where the migrants came ashore on Friday, and a reconnaissance aircraft flew over Big Pine Key and the surrounding area. Newfound Harbor is between Ramrod Key and Little Torch Key.
A speedboat was seen leaving the area shortly after 7:30 a.m. The boat probably belonged to migrant-smugglers, according to federal officials.