In the first five days of 2015, a total of ninety-six Cuban migrants were interdicted at sea during seven events in the Florida Straits. All seven interdictions involved dangerous conditions that included unseaworthy, homemade vessels that posed significant risk to the migrants attempting to make the perilous, ninety-mile journey across the open ocean of the Florida Straits. In the month of December, a total of 481 Cuban migrants were either interdicted at sea or landed in the United States during thirty-seven total events. These activities represent a 117 percent increase from December 2013, with a distinct spike in migrants following the President’s announcement on December 17 that U.S-Cuba policy changes were forthcoming.
Intercepted Cuban migrants report that Cuban authorities have told them the current “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy will be ending on January 15. This policy stipulates that Cuban migrants stopped prior to landing on U.S. soil are to be returned to Cuba, while Cuban migrants who successfully reach dry land in the United States are to be provided a path to legal residency and eventual U.S. citizenship.
Coast Guard officials believe that Cuban boat builders and other illicit actors who support and profit off the Cuban migrants are perpetuating rumors that the “wet foot, dry foot” policy is ending in order to increase their profit margins. Although actual U.S. policy changes regarding Cuba have not yet been announced or implemented, there is a perception in Cuba that such changes are imminent.
In response to this surge in illegal and dangerous migration attempts, the Coast Guard has increased patrols in the Florida Straits over the last three weeks while continuing to aggressively patrol the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Coast Guard leaders are also trying to send a clear message that the perceptions of an imminent change to the “wet foot, dry foot” policy are premature.
“The Administration’s recent announcement regarding Cuba does not affect immigration policies including ‘wet foot, dry foot’ or the Cuban Adjustment Act—which only Congress can change,” said Rear Admiral Jake Korn, Coast Guard 7th District Commander in Miami. “The Coast Guard is aggressively maintaining a presence in the region and discourages these dangerous and deadly voyages. Individuals must have a visa or other permission to travel to the States and anyone located at sea will be returned to Cuba in accordance with immigration laws,” he said.
Lessons Learned from the Southwest Border
The scenario that is playing out in Cuba and Southern Florida is not new. The State Department, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Coast Guard, as well as other components of DHS including Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, have repeatedly addressed similar situations involving Cuban and Haitian migrants in the past. Although much smaller in scale and duration, the current situation is also very similar to another scenario that played for several months this past summer when a sudden political announcement accompanied by rumors of forthcoming immigration policy changes resulted in a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied children and adults with children attempting to cross our southwest border illegally.
In response to the surge in Central American migrants attempting to gain entry to the United States, DHS participated in a government-wide response that drew upon resources from within DHS component agencies, as well as Health and Human Services, Defense, Justice and State. This summer’s effective response to the illicit migration at the southwest border was made possible by robust diplomatic outreach, coordinated strategic communications, and an aggressive and sustained surge in people, assets, equipment and resources to the border areas to properly address the significant increase in migrants, and overcome the false messaging associated with the surge.
The Way Forward—Communications and a Coordinated Response
Although still relatively low in numbers, the spike in illegal Cuban migrants should be addressed in a similar fashion as the events on the southwest border. The United States must coordinate diplomatic outreach, develop a coordinated communications plan and maintain a robust security presence in Southern Florida to prevent and respond to continued illegal migration.
As diplomatic relations are reestablished and migration talks kick off later this month, a clear message backed by a sustained response to the Cuban migrant surge is needed to promote safety and security on the water and in South Florida. Strategic communications will be more challenging as diplomatic relations develop in Cuba, but messaging will be critical to overcome the current misperceptions on the ground in Cuba.
As the lead department for border security, DHS leadership and component agencies, led by front line Coast Guard and CBP aircraft and ships, must respond in a coordinated and well-rehearsed fashion for the duration of the current flow of illegal Cuban migrants, while simultaneously transmitting a clear policy message.
Lastly, as lawmakers plan hearings and deliberations proceed to further define changes to immigration laws, Congress should ensure uninterrupted support and funding for all departments—including DHS and component agencies—as U.S.-Cuban relations continue to evolve in the months ahead. Changing U.S. immigration policy is complex endeavor. Cuban migrants are currently risking their lives in homemade vessels on a death-defying journey based on rumors and misperceptions. U.S. policy and politics must be tightly aligned in order to avoid preventable human tragedy.
Captain Pat DeQuattro, U.S. Coast Guard, is a 2014-2015 military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served most recently as executive director the deputy commandant for mission support, where he was responsible for all facets of support for Coast Guard human capital, engineering, acquisitions, and information technology programs. DeQuattro previously commanded Coast Guard Sector Key West, Florida; his operational deployments include drug interdiction in the waters off Central and South America and command of the cutter Sanibel. DeQuattro served as military aide to presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He is a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the University of Illinois as well as numerous professional military education programs.