US sends 161 immigrants back to Cuba after stopping their sea crossing

26 AUG 2016 AT 22:05 ET

US Coast Guard (AFP)

The United States repatriated 161 Cubans this week after intercepting them at sea as they attempted to reach American soil, the US Coast Guard said Friday.

Coast Guard patrol boats shuttled the migrants to Bahia de Cabanas, Cuba on three separate trips made Monday, Thursday and Friday, the agency said in a statement.

“We discourage anyone from taking to the sea and attempting to reach U.S. soil illegally – they are risking their lives with very little chance of success,” Coast Guard Captain Mark Gordon said.

“Navigating the Florida Straits can be extremely dangerous for the unprepared on illegal voyages and often leads to injury or death.”

The Coast Guard has seen a spike in the number of Cubans arriving in the United States by land and sea since Washington and Havana announced they would begin normalizing relations in December 2014.

Cuban migrants who reach the United States are put on a fast track to residency and citizenship under a Cold War-era policy that many fear will be shelved as the two countries normalize relations.

The US Coast Guard has registered at least 6,318 Cubans who have sought to reach US shores by sea since October 1, compared to 4,473 intercepted in the Florida Straits, Caribbean and Atlantic in the fiscal year 2015.