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WASHINGTON, D.C., Weds. July 14, 2021 (Reuters) – U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has warned would-be migrants from Cuba and Haiti against trying to reach the United States illegally by sea, saying the voyage was too dangerous and they will not be allowed to enter.

“Let me be clear: If you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States,” Mayorkas said at a news briefing.

Coast Guard officials are monitoring by air and have not seen a surge in migrants since the unrest in Cuba and the assassination of Haiti’s president last week, he said.

U.S. officials are prepared to deal with any surge, he added.

Mayorkas, whose family fled the Communist takeover of Cuba, said the issue had personal significance to him. He also stressed the danger of the journey.

“This risk is not worth taking,” he said.

But Cuban migrants are largely flocking to the U.S.-Mexico land border, not the U.S. coast. And in a sharp break from his predecessor Donald Trump, President Joe Biden has been letting most in pending the outcome of their asylum applications, according to government data. 

Since Biden took office in late January, the number of Cubans arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has risen sharply. This fiscal year through May, which began in October, border officials encountered more than 22,000 Cubans, the highest level in more than a decade.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows vividly the sharp contrast between the approaches of the Trump and Biden administration toward Cuban migrants.

In December 2020 – the last full month of Trump’s presidency – nearly two-thirds of all Cubans caught crossing the border were expelled to Mexico under a pandemic-related health order known as Title 42. By May of this year, the last month data is available, around 96% of Cubans were allowed into the United States to reunite with U.S.-based family members and seek legal status in immigration court.

The majority of Cuban migrants being allowed in are single adults, a notable development because Biden has continued to expel the vast majority of individual adults arriving from Central America and Mexico. He has made exceptions only for unaccompanied minors and most families.

U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio voiced concerns this week an explosion in anti-government protests in Cuba could spark a return to the era of massive boatlifts of Cubans seeking refuge at U.S. shores. Rubio, a Cuban-American representing Florida, raised the specter of the iconic Mariel boatlift in the 1980s and a 1994 surge in rafts leaving the island, saying on Twitter that the Cuban government could use the protests as an excuse to lift travel restrictions and spark another crisis at sea.

Pedro Ruiz, 51, who said he had to flee Cuba in 2016 because of his involvement in an opposition political party, encountered the stark difference between Trump and Biden policies on his journey to the United States.

Ruiz first escaped to Brazil, then discovered he could try for U.S. asylum and headed to the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019. But when he tried to cross, border agents sent him back to Mexico under a different Trump-era policy, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, that forced migrants to wait in Mexico for U.S. court hearings.

Ruiz was stuck in a shelter in the northern Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez for two years until Biden reversed the policy soon after he took office this year. Ruiz was finally allowed across the border in March to start a new life with his family in Miami while pursuing his asylum case.

“The only thing that Biden did was restore internationally protected asylum laws that Trump had violated,” said Ruiz in a phone interview. “That was the only change.”

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Leslie Adler and Howard Goller)

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