For decades, dramatic images of Cubans trying to reach the United States on decrepit boats made of all kinds of materials shocked many within the South Florida community. On the island, families waited desperately for news on whether loved ones had made it to shore.
In April, the Coast Guard did not intercept a single vessel ferrying Cuban migrants — the first time in seven years this has occurred.
“April was the first month in seven years where we didn’t have one Cuban migrant, not one,” Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard told The Wall Street Journal. “On a typical day at this time last year, we would probably pick up anywhere from 50 to 150 Cuban migrants.”
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The remarkable change is due to a drastic measure taken during the last days of the Obama administration in negotiation with the Cuban government: the elimination of an immigration policy for Cubans known as “wet foot, dry foot.”
The policy, implemented by President Bill Clinton in 1995 following a massive exodus by sea known as the “balsero crisis” allowed most Cubans to stay in the U.S. if they touched land.
April was the first month in seven years where we didn’t have one Cuban migrant, not one.
Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, U.S. Coast Guard
Since then, thousands of islanders fled by sea to try their luck, a number that increased after former President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced the restoration of diplomatic relations in Dec. 2014.
In 2016, as many anticipated a change in U.S. immigration policy, 5,396 Cubans were intercepted by the Coast Guard and more than 56,000 Cubans arrived in U.S. territory through different routes — mainly across the border with Mexico.
“Many times we encountered boat loads with migrants: it’s their fourth, fifth, sixth attempt, we would apprehend them and we would send them back,” Zukunft said, referring to Cuban migrants intercepted at sea before the end of the wet foot, dry foot policy. “They figured maybe one of these days they’d win the lottery and they’d go ‘feet-dry.’”
All of that changed on Jan. 12, when Obama announced the end of that policy.
“Clearly it was the repeal of the wet foot, dry foot policy with Cuba,” that brought an end to interdictions at sea, Zukunft said.
“With that policy being removed,” he said, even if migrants land on a remote U.S. island, “you’re going on a boat and you’re going back to Cuba.”
The trend is similar on the border with Mexico. In April, only 191 Cubans arrived at the border and were considered “inadmissible” by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) office. In February and March the number was even lower, 86.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres en Twitter: @ngameztorres