The Coast Guard found this group of Cuban migrants south of Key West, Florida, on September 13.

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Coast Guard estimates 4,308 Cubans have attempted to illegally migrate to U.S. since October 1, 2014

Coast Guard says Cubans fear U.S. will change its "wet foot, dry foot" policy

CNN  — 

The number of Cubans trying to reach the United States in rafts and small boats has grown, possibly because of the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the Coast Guard reports.

With 121 people in boats stopped at sea and repatriated to Cuba last week, the Coast Guard estimates 4,308 Cubans have attempted to illegally migrate to the United States since October 1, 2014, according to a Coast Guard press release. Most of these attempts occurred in the Florida Straits on unseaworthy vessels.

About 3,900 Cubans tried to reach the country by sea during the previous fiscal year – October 1, 2013, to September 30, 2014, the Coast Guard said.

The increase may be caused by a rumor circulating among Cubans that the United States will change its “wet foot, dry foot” policy, a Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Barney, told CNN on Tuesday.

The current policy allows those Cubans who reach American shores to seek asylum, Barney said. They can obtain permanent resident status after a year, the Migration Policy Institute said in a recent article about U.S. immigration policy.

The policy is based on the presumption that all Cuban emigrants are political refugees, the article said.

Most Cubans stopped at sea, however, are sent back to Cuba.

The “wet foot, dry foot” policy won’t change, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last month In a joint press conference with Cuba’s foreign minister after the U.S. Embassy reopened in Havana.

There are “no plans whatsoever to alter the current migration policy,” Kerry said.

The Cuban government has been pushing for that policy to be repealed. Congress would need to make the change.

After President Barack Obama announced in December that diplomatic relations would be restored, the number of Cubans trying to reach the United States rose quickly because of rumors the policy would be changed January 15, 2015.

The source of those rumors was unknown, but Coast Guard officials said at the time that human smugglers and builders of makeshift boats might be partly to blame.

Ever since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, there have been incidents of mass migration from Cuba – the most famous of which was the Mariel boatlift of 1980, when roughly 125,000 Cubans landed on Florida’s shores within a six-month span.

Just last week, 11 Cuban men, one woman and dog landed on Miami Beach in a homemade boat, CNN affiliate WPLG reported.

There are an estimated 1.1 million Cuban immigrants in the United States, the Migration Policy Institute article said, and “Cuban immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants represented a diaspora of 2.1 million in 2011.”

The Coast Guard is stopping migrants from other nations. In early August, the Coast Guard reported 2,364 Haitians and 483 Dominicans had attempted to illegally migrate to the United States since October 1, 2014.

The Coast Guard said it will keep intercepting the vessels at sea.

“Despite the recent steps to begin normalizing ties with Cuba, the Coast Guard’s missions and operations in the southeast remain unchanged,” said Capt. Mark Fedor, Coast Guard 7th District chief of response. “Our immigration policies remain the same, and we continue to strongly discourage those attempting to illegally enter the country by taking to the sea. There are legal ways to enter this country and this is not it.”