In the wake of the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba and political uncertainty about the future of immigration policy, the Coast Guard has seen a dramatic increase in interdictions of Cubans trying to enter the States illegally from the sea.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said the number of Cuban interdictions in fiscal 2016 was the highest it has been in a decade.
The 7,361 Cubans caught attempting to illegally migrate from the sea represents a 60 percent increase over fiscal 2015, he said.
Likely at issue is the unique "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy governing Cuban migration to the U.S. Under the policy, Cubans apprehended at sea in an attempt to reach the U.S. are repatriated to Cuba, while those who make it to land are allowed to remain in America and apply for residency.
Zukunft said Cuban migrants have been known to resort to a number of creative and extreme measures to achieve "dry-foot" standing, including touching down on Mona Island, in the Puerto Rican archipelago, and swallowing bleach or suffering self-inflicted gunshot wounds to force a medical evacuation to the U.S.
With the decision by President Barack Obama to begin normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba at the end of 2014 after a 53-year stalemate, the migration policy ultimately may be replaced by a more traditional visa-based immigration process.
"What I suspect led to the initial spike was when we raised the flag in Havana and reopened our embassy and talked about normalizing relations," Zukunft said. "And so, if you want to arrive in the United States, you get a visa, you don't arrive feet dry. And the uncertainty of another administration of, 'Is this going to come to an end?' So I think that is open to conjecture right now."
It remains to be seen what President-elect Donald Trump's policy will be toward immigration from Cuba, though he has made numerous hard-line statements about his plans to curb illegal border crossings from Mexico.
Zukunft said a policy change would make a significant difference for the Coast Guard, which now spends substantial resources to apprehend migrants as they make repeated attempts to achieve landfall.
While many get caught and returned to Cuba, Zukunft said the service completes a thorough interview process, lasting as long as four days, to ensure that those being repatriated will not be subject to human rights abuses or retaliation upon return to their country.
Fewer than one percent have credible claims of reprisal necessitating asylum in the U.S., he said.
"The calculus has changed dramatically and, of course, it changed dramatically on Nov. 25 with the death of Fidel Castro," Zukunft said, naming Cuba's notorious long-time dictator who governed the country until 2008 before appointing his younger brother Raul as his successor.
"And [he has] a brother who's more moderate. So there may be an opportunity there as well."