The number of Cubans caught at sea off the coast of Florida has fallen since former U.S. President Barack Obama ended the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy during his final days in office, according to Admiral Paul Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Zukunft told news sources that the Coast Guard has intercepted less than 100 migrants since the immigration policy was officially ended on January 12. In comparison, the sea service detained over 10,000 migrants at sea last year.
‘Wet foot, dry foot’ allowed Cubans who landed on U.S. soil to apply for legal residency after one year in the country. It was ended as part of Obama’s initiative to thaw relations with the island nation for the first time in over 50 years.
The immigration policy was established by the Clinton administration in 1995 and for years gave Cuban migrants hope that they could become Americans if they could survive the long trip by sea. Under the policy, migrants who were intercepted at sea (‘wet feet’) were sent back to their homeland. Migrants who managed to reach American soil (‘dry feet’) were allowed to remain in the U.S. and eventually apply for residency.
But most migrants who made the 90-mile sea trip used makeshift crafts that often capsized or sunk before reaching Florida’s coast, creating dangerous situations that the Coast Guard often had to resolve. If the migrants did not reach the shore, the Coast Guard would detain and deport them back to Cuba.
According to Zukunft, the ending of the policy has stopped the number of complicated and sometimes dangerous situations the agency had to deal with in the region, especially when the migrants tried to do something desperate in an effort to make it to the U.S.
“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 told The Washington Post. “We would have interdictions where they would threaten to drown a baby if we were to stop them.”
There was a spike in the number of migrants who attempted to reach the U.S. in anticipation of Obama’s policy change, but the numbers have since plummeted. Before Obama made the announcement, the Coast Guard detained 2,059 Cuban migrants and an additional 1,317 from the Dominican Republic and Haiti in fiscal 2014.
Obama’s decision to end ‘wet foot, dry foot’ was decried by some Cubans, who said U.S. border officials turned away some migrants just before the former president made the announcement in January.
There are reports that 11 Cuban migrants are being held in Texas after they allegedly crossed the U.S. border via the Mexican city of Laredo before ‘wet foot, dry foot’ was officially rescinded, but were scheduled appointments for later that day after the announcement was made. U.S. Customs and Border Protection released a statement saying it was looking into the problem and will “take appropriate action.”