Will the NYT Remember the Lessons of Wet Foot, Dry Foot?

Updated: February 6th, 2017, 2:05 pm


  by  Jeremy Beck

In praising President Obama's decision to end "wet foot, dry foot," the New York Times described the decades-old policy toward Cuban migrants as "misguided" for encouraging "Cubans to embark on perilous, and often deadly, journeys on rafts across the Florida straits and across borders in South and Central America." 

The NYT editors observe that the promise of a life in the United States is a powerful pull factor that incentivizes attempted entry into the country even at terrible risk. They could apply the same critique to the current state of immigration enforcement.

Like the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, enforcement directives issued over the past few years result in different outcomes based largely on where migrants are intercepted. Those caught at the border attempting illegal entry are returned by the border patrol or processed through ICE and deported as an official "removal," while those who successfully make it to the interior have "close to zero" odds of being required to leave the country. Just as "wet foot, dry foot" rewarded Cubans who avoided capture at sea, new restrictions placed on immigration agents have similarly rewarded migrants the world over who are lucky or skillful enough to make it to the interior. 

In Fiscal Year 2016, unauthorized aliens in the interior (who did not have a criminal conviction on their record) faced a less-than-one-tenth-of-one-percent chance of being apprehended and deported.

Furthermore, changes in border enforcement policy increased the likelihood of a migrant reaching the interior. In 2016, the president of the National Border Patrol Council testified:

"If you are an unaccompanied minor we will not only release you, but will escort you to your final destination. If you are a family unit, we will release you. If you claim credible fear, we will release you. If you are a single male and we do not physically see you cross the border and you claim that you have been in this country since 2014, we will release you."
During the 2014 border surge, The New York Times reported that human smugglers were presenting themselves as relatives, that new arrivals were routinely released into the interior with no plans to ensure they appeared in court, and that the change in policy prompted parents to make the journey with their children or put their children into the hands of coyotes.

The word had spread: if you make it to the interior, you'll get to stay - and, moreover, your chances of being released at the border are better if you have a child with you. 

While many of the perceptions about the new policy were misinformed (the government was not issuing work permits to every group that arrived as a family, for example), the underlying message was making the rounds. The Washington Times reported in the spring of 2015:

"...the very punishment the Obama administration was touting last year -- detailing an eventual deportation court date with unofficial permission to be in the country until then -- was the same document smugglers were citing, saying it gave illegal immigrants a chance to be released into the country, where they could dissolve into the shadows with the rest of the 11 million illegal immigrants."

The Obama administration mounted an ad campaign in Central America to discourage families from sending their children on the dangerous journey. But that and a short-lived effort to remove migrants who defied court-ordered deportations failed to change the valid opinion that the odds of getting to stay were good. After a drop in 2015, the numbers surged again.

record number of family units were apprehended at the border in FY2016 and analysis from the Department of Homeland Security concluded that the increasing numbers are "largely driven by migrant perceptions of U.S. policies in place to release minors and family units on their own recognizance."

The pull factors are as strong as the push factors in motivating a perilous journey. 

A late 2015 survey found that four out of five Hondurans who traveled to the southern border did so for economic opportunities. Speaking to the New York Times last April, President Morales of Guatemala also spoke of the migration surge in economic terms: 

"...we are losing that human talent....we can work hand in hand generating job opportunities in Guatemala....that way we could convince our people there to engage in certain economic activities and they have a safe future here."

The New York Times' lamented a similar "brain drain" in its editorial on the changing migration policy toward Cuba, and hoped that without the lure of a life in the United States, "more Cubans {will} press for economic changes and political freedoms."

The NYT editors argue that Cuba - and Cubans - will benefit from policy changes that result in fewer migrant deaths and more political progress. This is surely true of other countries as well. 

The editorial says Donald Trump would be foolish to reinstate a policy that encourages deadly crossings and brain drain. If the incoming administration fulfills its promise to send the message that illegal immigration from any country will no longer be worth the risk, will the New York Times remember the lessons of wet foot/dry foot?

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA

Rewards for Illegal Aliens
Interior Enforcement