September 23, 2014 / 8:04 PM / in 3 years

Mexico frees Cuban survivors found at sea, some bound for U.S. border

CHETUMAL Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico on Tuesday released 14 Cuban migrants rescued at sea this month and some of them headed for the United States by bus to take advantage of a U.S. policy that allows Cubans arriving by land to stay.

A boat used by Cuban migrants to travel to the United States is seen in this August 31, 2014 handout photograph made available to Reuters by Mexico's Navy (SEMAR) on September 1, 2014. REUTERS/SEMAR/Handout via Reuters

The Cubans, who were without food and survived by drinking rain water, were intercepted off the Yucatan peninsula badly sunburned and dehydrated after three weeks adrift during which many of their companions died.

Mexico’s government had said they would likely be deported.

Only 15 survived the journey from Manzanillo in eastern Cuba, with 15 dying at sea, and two more dying after they were rescued. One migrant had already been released and is in the United States.

The group set off on August 7, and were forced to fashion a makeshift sail for their vessel after the motor failed early in the journey.

A Mexican immigration official said on Monday that the Cuban government had not recognized the survivors as its citizens. The Cuban government has not commented on the case.

They were released from an immigration center in Chetumal on the Yucatan peninsula on Tuesday and the group split into two. Some made for the southeastern city of Villahermosa and said they were on the way to the U.S. border, while the rest headed for the Yucatan capital of Merida.

“I have 30 days to either leave the country or legalize (my situation),” said Luis Suarez Calzada, one of the survivors as he left the immigration center in Chetumal wearing a red polo shirt and a baseball cap.

“We are grateful to the fishermen who rescued us,” he added, saying the group had gone without food for 25 days during their ordeal.

Jose Caballero, the husband of one of the rescued women confirmed that his wife, Maylin Perez, had been released.

“My wife just called. We spoke very briefly,” he said, explaining she was using a borrowed cellphone and asked him to send money to pay the bus fare to the U.S. border.

“I‘m running now to send the money,” he added.

Caballero left Cuba by the same route in December and is now a maintenance worker at a trucking company in Austin, Texas.

Separately, nine Cubans came ashore in a homemade metal boat near Miami on Tuesday afternoon saying they had been at sea for 10 days, according to eyewitnesses.

“They were very excited when they got onto the beach,” said Cristina Plihal, who watched from her beach front condo window in Key Biscayne, as U.S. officials escorted them off. “When they jumped onto the sand they started screaming ‘Cuba, Cuba’.”

Under the “wet foot, dry foot policy” of the United States, Cuban migrants who make it onto U.S. soil are allowed to remain while those intercepted at sea are turned back.

Cubans seeking to flee the communist-run island are heading in increasing numbers to Central America or southern Mexico and then making a long journey overland to reach the United States.

U.S. authorities say 16,200 Cubans arrived without visas at the border with Mexico in the past 11 months, the highest number in a decade.

On Monday, just days after Mexico’s foreign minister visited the Communist-run island, a Mexican immigration official said the 14 were being released on humanitarian grounds, and would be given legal residency.

Reporting by David Adams in Miami, Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City and Reuters Television in Chetumal; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner and Andrew Hay

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