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Witnessing a 'dry foot' arrival

MIAMI – On Tuesday, one year after moving here from Illinois, I got a firsthand look at one of the key issues shaping southern Florida – migration from Cuba.

Just before dawn, I was out for a run near the waters of Biscayne Bay. I had nearly reached the Rickenbacker Bridge when I saw ahead of me in the lifting darkness a group of people walking toward me on the same tree-lined path.

Not fully awake, despite the fact that I was running, my first thought was this might be a bunch of teenage kids who were up to no good. After all, why would any group of people be walking together in a tight-knit pack on a running path just before daybreak?

I moved over to a parallel path closer to the water, one with fewer trees and better light. As I passed the group, I observed it was made up of mostly men, but a few women as well. Again, without full light it was difficult to tell. Some of the men walked slowly with their hands folded gently behind them, a posture that was slightly comforting to this lone jogger.

I continued my run over the bridge and started back when I heard a siren and soon saw red emergency vehicle lights ahead. Then I saw a single helicopter flying overhead.

As I got closer, I could take in the whole scene, and I suddenly knew exactly what was happening before me. The group was now accompanied by a fire rescue truck, a police car, and a couple of law enforcement officers standing near them.

Everyone in the group was seated on the same running path, quietly, seemingly peaceful in their place, some without shoes, one with gray hair, and a few with sheets or blankets wrapped around them.  

They were Cubans. They had made it. Dry feet. Success.

The group will very likely be allowed to remain here under the U.S. government policy known as "wet foot/dry foot." Had they been interdicted at sea, they would most likely have been sent back to Cuba.

Dangerous journey
U.S. Coast Guard said they've seen a steady increase in the number of Cubans taking to the sea and heading to Florida. During 2007 the Coast Guard reported that of the more than 7,000 Cubans known to have set sail for Florida, at least 2,868 were interdicted at sea, and more than 4,500 made it past Coast Guard cutters in the Florida Straits and arrived on U.S. soil. Untold hundreds also died trying and were lost at sea.

Despite the dangers, Cubans continue to take the risky journey – during the first 15 days of 2008 Coast Guard crews have already interdicted 203 Cuban migrants attempting to enter the U.S. illegally.

When I got home, I flipped on the NBC television station in Miami, WTVJ, and my suspicions that the people I had seen had just arrived in the country were confirmed.

The lower third of the screen read "Cubans Ashore" and the helicopter shot showed the very people I had just seen. Later, I read an account from the 14 Cubans in which they said they were dropped off quietly on the shore at about 6:30 a.m. after spending a chilly night aboard a speedboat.

By that math, I saw them within about 30 minutes of their arrival, and I know they saw me. So I guess it is possible that as NBC Correspondent Mark Potter said, "You may have been their first American."