The Coast Guard’s top officer said Wednesday that the number of migrants intercepted at sea by his service off the coast of Florida has plummeted since January, largely a symptom of President Barack Obama ending the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy with Cuba a week before he left office.
Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, said the sea service has intercepted fewer than 100 migrants since the Jan. 12 announcement, after detaining more than 10,000 migrants off the coast of Florida in 2016. The policy generally allowed Cubans who made it to American soil to pursue legal residency but was eliminated following Obama’s decision to restore relations with Cuba for the first time since 1961.
The policy, established by President Bill Clinton, for years gave Cubans hope that if they could make the 90-mile trip by sea, they could become Americans. But many of them did so in makeshift craft that capsized or sunk, creating crises at sea. If they did not make it all the way to Florida, U.S. authorities typically detained and returned them to their homeland.
Zukunft said Obama’s decision has curtailed the number of dangerous situations the Coast Guard saw in the region, especially when migrants did something rash in an effort to make to the United States.
“I’m talking self-mutilation, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, very desperate measures so that they would be evacuated to a hospital in the United States and then be declared feet-dry and then paroled in the United States,” Zukunft said. “We would have interdictions where they would threaten to drown a baby if we were to stop them.”
The number of migrants spiked in anticipation of Obama changing the policy before he left office. Prior to his decision, the Coast Guard said it intercepted 3,376 migrants off the coast of Florida in fiscal 2014 and 2,094 in fiscal 2013. Of those 3,376 migrants, 2,059 came from Cuba, with people from Haiti and the Dominican Republican making up the bulk of the rest.
Obama’s decision was decried by some Cubans and Cuban Americans, who said his announcement in January turned some migrants away just before they made it across the border. It is considered unlikely that President Trump would reverse the move.