MIAMI - MARCH 08: A U.S. Coast Guard boat participates in the Homeland Security Task Force Southeast mass migration drill March 8, 2007 off the shore of Miami, Florida. Hundreds of response personnel from more than 50 local, county, state and federal agencies participated in the two-day exercise that was simulating a large, sudden change in the migration process in Cuba and the United States' response. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)2007 Getty Images
The U.S. Coast Guard said nine undocumented Cuban migrants died while trying to complete a perilous journey by boat to the Florida coast.
"Our deepest condolences to the families of the nine people who recently did lose their lives," Capt. Mark Gordon, the head of enforcement for the Coast Guard's 7th District, said Friday.
"Unfortunately, tragedy is all too common when taking to the sea in homemade vessels with no safety or navigation equipment."
The Coast Guard said 18 Cuban migrants were rescued Friday by a Royal Caribbean cruise liner to the west of Marco Island, a barrier island just off the coast of Southwest Florida, with symptoms of "severe dehydration."
The migrants told the Coast Guard they had left Cuba 22 days earlier on board makeshift vessels and that nine fellow travelers had perished at sea.
The Coast Guard says 2,420 Cubans have been intercepted in the Straits of Florida during the current fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1.
Under the United States' unilateral "wet foot, dry foot" policy, undocumented Cuban migrants who reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay and acquire Green Cards as per the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, while those intercepted at sea are repatriated to the Communist-ruled island unless they can demonstrate a "well-founded fear of persecution."
More than 43,000 undocumented Cuban migrants arrived in the United States during the previous fiscal year from Oct. 1, 2014, to Sept. 30, 2015, an increase of more than 77 percent relative to the previous 12-month period.
Uncertainty about a possible change in U.S. immigration policy stemming from the thaw in Cuba-U.S. relations has sparked a new surge in migration from the island, the U.S. Coast Guard says.
The two nations restored full diplomatic relations last year, and on Sunday Barack Obama will begin the first visit to Cuba by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years, a three-day trip in which he will meet with Cuban counterpart Raul Castro.