Officials said Wednesday that the number of Cuban migrants trying to reach the U.S. by sea has dropped significantly since January, when the U.S. ended its "wet foot, dry foot" policy allowing those who reach the country to seek legal residency.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said that since President Obama ended the policy on Jan. 12, the Coast Guard has detained fewer than 100 migrants during their sea journey.
That number is strikingly lower than the 10,000 migrants the Coast Guard detained off the Florida coast in 2016.
“The flow has stopped,” Zukunft told reporters at a Center for Media and Security event.
The “wet foot, dry foot” policy was established in 1995 and effectively allowed Cubans fleeing their country to qualify for permanent residency if they made it to U.S. shores, or with "dry" feet, while those caught before they landed, or with "wet" feet, were sent back.
But officials said the rule resulted in desperate measures by migrants to reach U.S. soil.
"I'm talking self-mutilation, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, very desperate measures so 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 said. "It was putting our people at risk. We would have interdictions where they would threaten to drown a baby if we were to try to stop them."
The decision to end the policy has freed up Coast Guard resources and ships to tackle a growing drug smuggling problem on the high seas, officials said.
While the U.S. was aware of 80 percent of waterway drug shipments, Zukunft said "there were 580 events that we had at least one level of information on that we just did not have enough ships or enough planes to track those down."
The newly available funding resources means “maybe I can close that window a little bit more if we don’t have to as much migrate interdiction on the high seas," he added.
Zukunft warned, however, that should the Trump administration build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border as President Trump promised on the campaign trail, it will increase the number of migrants attempting to reach the U.S. by water.
“If you build a wall, a terrestrial wall, well then I think it will make the maritime domain even more appealing,” he said. “If you can’t make your way across our southwest border, then it defaults to a maritime border. We haven’t seen that shift yet but it’s one we’re keeping a close eye on.”