By Shurna DeCou
GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands (Reuters) - Cayman Islands officials say a growing number of Cuban migrant boats are being spotted in its territorial waters, apparently in response to possible changes in U.S. immigration laws migrants fear could make it harder for them to enter the United States.
Using makeshift boats or speed boats operated by smugglers, Cubans attempting to flee the communist-run island for the United States have long traveled through the waters of the Cayman Islands, a British territory located less than 100 miles south of Cuba.
The route offers favorable winds and sea currents for Cuban migrants trying to reach Honduras, from where they make the long journey over land to reach the U.S. border with Mexico.
The Cayman government does not keep official statistics on Cuban boats traveling through its waters, but the number of Cuban migrants seen by authorities and islanders has risen in recent months, said Wesley Howell, the government's deputy chief for Internal and External Affairs.
"We are seeing an increase of migrants passing by," he said.
Cayman authorities say the number is lower than the spike experienced in the mid-1990s when tens of thousands of Cuban boat people fled toward Florida and hundreds of refugees flowed into the Caymans.
Over the last 15 months, nearly 100 Cubans have been repatriated after arriving in the Caymans, according to immigration officials.
Gary Wong, a deputy chief immigration officer in the Caymans, said Cubans who reached the Caymans' shores recently have repeatedly mentioned growing concern about efforts under way in the U.S. Congress to overhaul American immigration laws.
Current U.S. laws grant residency to nearly all Cubans under a controversial policy known as "wet foot, dry foot" that allows entry to Cubans who reach U.S. soil, while those intercepted at sea are sent back.
"What I am hearing from Cuban nationals is ... they feel the U.S. may be getting ready to review the wet foot, dry foot policy," Wong said.
Under an agreement between Cuba and the Cayman Islands signed more than a decade ago, Cuban migrant boats are allowed to pass through Cayman waters as long as they do not seek any assistance.
For years, enforcement was lax and Caymanians regularly helped Cubans with boat repairs, fuel, food and water. However in 2005, after a flood of migrants in rickety boats, Cayman officials began enforcing the restrictions and threatening stiff fees or even jail time.
But the restrictions are coming under growing criticism from ordinary Caymanians.
Last month, an incident garnered front-page news coverage after a crowd of people argued with police and immigration officials who prevented them from giving food and water to a rickety, overloaded boat with 30 Cuban migrants having engine trouble near a dock on Grand Cayman, the Caymans' biggest island.
Two Cuban men swam from the boat and asked the crowd standing on the edge of the water for some sunglasses to shield their eyes from the beating sun.
One man tossed his own sunglasses to the men, while another went to a nearby shop and bought several pairs and placed them in a plastic container that the two men took back to the boat.
Officials allowed the boat to tie up to a buoy to make repairs, but the incident angered many Caymanians.
Bernie Bush, a businessman and a local government official who went to the dock, said some people considered getting into their boats and traveling out to international waters to help the migrants.
"Some of the people who had boats said they would follow the Cubans and give them food and water," he said. "It is ridiculous that in order to give aid we have to go out to international waters. These people are human beings."
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Vicki Allen)