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US, Cuba spar over migration policy

The United States said today that it has dispatched additional ships to the Florida Straits to halt Cuban rafters but rebuffed demands for broader changes to US migration rules which dominated the first day of talks between Cuban officials and the highest-ranking Ameri can delegation to the island in more than three decades.

Cuba urged the US to end immigration privileges which grant virtually automatic legal residency to any Cuban who touches American soil.

Its government blames the Cold War policy for luring tens of thousands of Cubans a year to make perilous journeys by sea and land to try to reach the United States. Nevertheless, many Cubans are worried that scrapping the rules would take away their chance to have a better life in the US.

"I don't want them to get rid of it," said Mile Nieves, a 42-year-old Havana resident. "I've got my whole family there and I'm desperate to leave."

US officials reported a spike in the number of rafters attempting to reach Florida after the announcement on December 17 that the countries would move to normalise ties. Those numbers appear to have slowed in recent days.

In Washington, US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a statement saying that additional Coast Guard cutters have been deployed to stop Cuban and Haitian migrants from reaching the United States by boat.

America's "wet foot, dry foot" approach, which generally shields Cubans from deportation if they touch US land, remains in effect, Mr Johnson said. But he stressed that those trying to come by sea would most likely be interdicted and returned.

"Cuba wants a normal relationship with the US, in the broadest sense but also in the area of migration," said Cuba's head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal. She called for the US to end "exceptional treatment that no other citizens in the world receive, causing an irregular situation in the flow of migrants".

American officials instead pressed Cuba to take back tens of thousands of its nationals whom US authorities want to deport because they have been convicted of crimes. No progress was made on that issue, according to an official present in the meeting.

The talks continue tomorrow with broader negotiations on how the US and Cuba can end half a century of enmity - as promised last month by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro. The nations hope to re-establish embassies and post ambassadors to each other's capitals in the coming months.

After meeting with the Cubans for more than three hours, State Department officials said the annual migration talks had been easier than usual because the two sides felt comfortable focusing almost entirely on migration. In past years, the migration talks served as a pretext for a wider range of bilateral disagreements.

"Today's discussions prove that despite clear differences that remain between our countries, the United States and Cuba can find opportunities to advance our mutual, shared interests as well as engage in respectful and thoughtful dialogue," said the State Department's Alex Lee, who headed the US delegation ahead of this afternoon's arrival of Roberta Jacobson.

Ms Jacobson is the top American diplomat for Latin America and most senior US official to visit Cuba in more than three decades.

Lieutenant Commander Gabe Somma, spokesman for the Coast Guard's 7th District in Miami, said "aggressively" stepped-up patrols have eased the spike in rafters seen immediately after the twin announcements last month by Mr Castro and Mr Obama.

"We have seen a slowdown in the last two weeks," Lt Cmdr Somma said. He would not say how many more US boats were patrolling the Florida Straits and Caribbean.

The Havana talks were taking place hours after Mr Obama said US efforts to loosen the five-decade trade embargo have "the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere" and are a "new hope for the future in Cuba".

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