Wall Street Journal
By Ben Kesling
May 11, 2017
WASHINGTON—For the first time in nearly a decade, the Coast Guard last month didn’t intercept any Cubans trying to sail illegally to the U.S., a change due in large part to new policies set by both the Obama and Trump administrations, the head of the Coast Guard said Wednesday.
The dramatic drop in the number of Cubans attempting the sea journey in April mirrors a significant fall in migrant flow along the southwestern U.S. land border, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said in an interview.
“April was the first month in seven years where we didn’t have one Cuban migrant, not one,” Adm. Zukunft said. “On a typical day at this time last year, we would probably pick up anywhere from 50 to 150 Cuban migrants,” he added.
He traced the decline to former President Barack Obama’s late-term policy change toward fleeing Cubans, and to President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
Mr. Obama’s decision, just days before leaving office, repealed what was known as the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, whereby Cubans who reached U.S. shores were allowed to stay while those caught in transit at sea were sent back. It was a special privilege granted to Cubans, whose U.S. backers wanted to support those fleeing the Castro regime.
“Clearly it was the repeal of the wet-foot, dry-foot policy with Cuba,” Adm. Zukunft said.
That policy allowed Cuban émigrés who made it to the U.S. without a visa to stay and to apply for a green card after one year. The controversial policy, put in place in the 1990s, was rescinded in the last days of Mr. Obama’s presidency as he opened up relations with the Cuba more broadly and moved to bring U.S. immigration policy toward Cuba in line with other countries.
Beginning in late 2014, the U.S. and Cuba have moved toward more normalized relations, exchanging presidential visits and reopening embassies.
Adm. Zukunft also pointed to Mr. Trump’s tough immigration policies, which include pushing for a border wall with Mexico, a proposed ban on travel to the U.S. from certain countries and stepped up enforcement inside the country.
“Numbers across the board are way down, at sea and even on the land border,” said Adm. Zukunft. “Clearly, the policies that are out there right now, especially if you have a criminal record, you’re going back to your country of origin. I think that sent a pretty strong signal up and down the food chain that you aren’t going to get a welcome mat if you gain illegal entry into the United States.”
The number of illegal immigrants, including Cubans, intercepted at sea had been steadily rising since 2011, according to available Coast Guard statistics, with 2016 seeing more than 5,200 Cuban migrants interdicted at sea. Those numbers dropped sharply since Mr. Trump took office in January.
“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,” Adm. Zukunft said, talking about Cuban immigrants before the reversal of wet-foot, dry-foot policy. “They figured maybe one of these days they’d win the lottery and they’d go ‘feet-dry,’” he 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.”
Mr. Trump has said he doesn’t think wet-foot, dry-foot was a good policy.
“I don’t think that’s fair. I mean why would that be a fair thing?” then-candidate Trump said last February. “It’s very unfair when people who just walk across the border, and you have other people that do it legally.”
The Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for border control and which recently reported a sharp drop in the number of people trying to enter the U.S. from Mexico illegally. In April, the number of arrests by Border Patrol dropped 71% from the same time last year, a decline in land-crossings that began during Mr. Trump’s first full month in office.
Write to Ben Kesling at email@example.com
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