But federal investigators now believe many in this new wave of illegal Cuban immigrants had help. CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts reports they may be part of a sophisticated smuggling network.
The same speedboats once used by drug runners now carry families in search of freedom. The going rate is $8,000 per person.
"The smuggling of people into this country is a very dangerous practice," says U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Ron LeBrac. "The smugglers don't have much regard for the people. They treat them like human cargo."
According to the Coast Guard, the smugglers have three favorite routes, normally taken after dark.
One way is the powerboat "red eye," so named because it takes people directly from Cuba to the U.S. shore. Another way is to take a detour through the Bahamas, where Cuban and Haitian refugees are often loaded onto the same boat. The third way is to detour through deserted islands like Caysal Bank, where smugglers put men, women and children on ragged boats for the last leg of what could be a week-long journey to family in South Florida.
The number of illegal Cuban immigrants arriving in Florida has jumped from 40 to 200 per month, and researchers say the numbers will likely go higher.
"The recent increase is because Cuba has a tough economic situation," says Max Castro, of the University of Miami. "Because over time a network of smugglers has developed. And because people who arrived here in the mid-1990s have over time accumulated enough money to pay smugglers."
Pulled by the magnet of opportunity in America -- and pushed by poverty at home -- some fear the Cuban refugee problem in South Florida could soon rival the crisis of the early 1990s, when thousands arrived in inner tubes and homemade crafts.
The Coast Guard now estimates for every 1,000 illegal immigrants they detain at sea, that many more make it safely to shore with the help of a hired hand. And under American policy, if they make it to dry land, they are home free.