Most U.S. and Cuban officials and Cuba observers have attributed the shift to the fact that the U.S. is moving toward normalizing relations with Cuba. More specifically, Cubans who want off the island fear that the American policy -- officially dubbed the "Cuban Adjustment Act" but known far more widely as "wet-foot dry-foot" -- will come to an end. Rumors are reportedly flying all over the island.
The policy, aimed at giving political and social relief to Cubans fleeing the island nation's repressive regime and/or political persecution, allows Cubans who enter the United States legally or illegally to file an asylum claim, qualify for certain types of assistance and eventually become permanent residents, then U.S. citizens.
The policy got its more colloquial name because of the way that it works on the ground. Those who make it to U.S. land (dry foot) get to stay and navigate the process described above. Those who are caught at sea (wet foot) are almost always returned.
The wet-foot, dry-foot policy has also produced some memorable moments, including when South Florida law enforcement officers, immigration agents and officials from other agencies have literally given chase to Cubans who made a final dash for the shore. We're talking awkward darting motions made by officers and Cubans -- forward, backward, sideways, into the water, quick football-game-like attempts -- to make an end run or tackle someone. These moments can be difficult to watch. They reek of desperation.
At the same time, Cubans do have access to a route to immigration and citizenship that no other group enjoys. That's certainly a source of some well-documented tensions between the United States' mostly Democratic-leaning Mexican-Americans and the country's more (but certainly shifting left) Republican Cuban-American populations.
A look at what the Coast Guard calls its "interdiction data" -- or count of people caught and detained at sea -- would appear to support claims that worries about a sudden end to the wet-foot, dry-foot option are driving a surge.
President Obama announced plans to begin normalizing relations with Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014. In fiscal year 2015 -- that's the period between Oct. 1, 2014, and Sept. 30, 2015 -- the U.S. Coast Guard stopped 4,462 Cubans who attempted to illegally enter the United States by sea, the Miami Herald reported. In fiscal 2104 -- that was Oct. 1, 2013 to Sept. 30, 2014 (before normalization) -- 2,059 Cubans were caught at sea, according to Coast Guard data.
That means that less than half the number of Cubans were caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally by sea in fiscal 2014 than were in fiscal 2015.
Also adding credence to the claims that rumors and fear of a policy change might be driving the surge: A comment from a Coast Guard official published Oct. 10 in the Miami Herald:
Coast Guard missions and operations in the Southeast remain unchanged including no changes to U.S. immigration policies. The Coast Guard strongly discourages attempts to illegally enter the country by taking to the sea," Capt. Mark Gordon, Coast Guard 7th District chief of response enforcement, said in a statement issued Saturday. "Migrants interdicted at sea will be returned to their country of origin in accordance with U.S. immigration laws."
Gordon seems to be saying, in effect, 'People should not attempt an illegal crossing.' But, he also says clearly that there has been no change in U.S. immigration policy regarding Cuba. Those who manage to make it to U.S. land will continue to benefit from the "dry foot" part of the policy. The problem is, that's a warning that also came with confirmation that there might be some reward for Cubans who make it beyond the big risk of a sea crossing.
Raul Castro's regime has long said that the United States' wet-foot, dry foot policy encourages and even offers incentives to those who are bold enough or desperate enough to attempt to make the roughly 90-mile journey from Cuba to the U.S. by sea. Aside from the distance, what makes the journey so difficult are sea conditions and the fact that so many Cubans try to make the crossing in meager boats, rafts, overcrowded-but-solid vessels and sometimes 1950s-era cars transformed into buoyant objects. (Click on this page and view an image of a Buick transformed into a boat filled with Cuban migrants.)
It's all horribly dangerous. This is likely one of the major reasons why the number of Cubans trying to enter the United States from Mexico has also surged, The Tampa Bay Times reported. These Cubans have become known as "dusty foot" migrants. And, the dry foot part of the Cuban Adjustment Act does apply. Some observes have been particularly perturbed by the practice of some Cuban migrants obtaining legal status under the law designed for the protection of dissidents and political repression, then traveling back and forth to Cuba for regular visits.
Even Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American born in the United States and a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, has noted the contradiction between the Obama administration’s normalization policy, which he opposes, and the current law.
In December 2014, a Miami NBC station reported that Rubio had this to say:
The Cuban Adjustment Act is based on the premise that the Cuban people are fleeing tyranny and oppression. And now the U.S. government has said that we no longer consider Cuba to be repressive and a dictatorship.