The end of the US government's preferential status for Cuban migrants could result in short-term gains but long-term pain for human smuggling networks in Latin America.
The White House announced on January 12 that it has rescinded the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which allowed Cuban migrants who reached the United States without immigration authorization to begin the process of obtaining residency within a year.
The decision seeks to establish greater consistency between the US government's immigration policy towards Cubans and other nationalities. It is also part of a broader rapprochement between the United States and Cuba started under President Barack Obama. As part of the deal, the Cuban government has agreed to receive Cuban nationals who have been ordered to leave the United States or caught at sea.
“By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries,” Obama said in a statement.
In anticipation of this announcement, many Cubans have flocked to the United States hoping to arrive before their special immigration status changed. There were 53,416 Cubans admitted to the US in 2016, compared to just 4,890 in 2013, according to Customs and Border Protection data cited by the Washington Post.
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The abrupt end to the “wet foot, dry foot” policy will likely be detrimental to human smuggling networks in northern parts of South America as well as Central America and Mexico. These illicit networks have seen their potential client pool expand in recent years as a result of the surge in Cuban migrants trying to reach the United States.
Just 90 miles from the coast of Florida, many citizens of Cuba attempt the journey by sea in homemade rafts or inner tubes. However, a significant number make the much longer -- but safer -- overland trek, often starting in Ecuador before moving through Colombia, Central America and Mexico. Cuban migrants were frequently expedited or even airlifted to northern Mexico, but at the end of last year Central American governments started to turn them back because of the huge numbers that were arriving at their borders. This forced a greater number of Cubans into the clutches of human smuggling networks. But now that they will no longer receive special treatment under “wet foot, dry foot,” the flow of Cuban migrants could slow to a trickle, in turn drying up the profits from human smuggling.
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There are, however, an unknown number of Cuban migrants in Central America and Mexico whose futures have been thrown into question as a result of the White House's decision. Should they continue on their path to the United States, they will have to rely on human smugglers to get across Central America as well as the US-Mexico border. So the change in US policy may provide human smugglers a temporary boost in business, even though it appears to have hurt their long-term financial interests.