Obama WH: 'Certainly an Uptick' in Number of Cubans Fleeing to USA Since Obama Normalized Relations

By Susan Jones | February 19, 2016 | 10:06am EST
Secretary of State John Kerry and other dignitaries watch as U.S. Marines raise the American flag over the newly reopened embassy in Havana on August 14, 2015. (AP File Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - In the months after President Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba, there's "certainly" been an "uptick" in the number of Cubans trying to make their way to the United States, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said on Thursday.

At a White House news briefing, a reporter asked Rhodes about the "dramatic spike in the number of Cubans fleeing for the U.S."

"So we've seen, certainly, an uptick in the number of Cubans, particularly Cubans traveling to Central America as part of an effort to make their way to the United States," Rhodes said. "I think that's tied to perhaps expectations around our policy changes but also greater freedom of movement for Cubans to travel from Cuba."

Rhodes said the Obama administration has no plans to change the longstanding "wet foot/dry foot" immigration policy, which says Cubans who reach U.S. soil qualify for legal permanent resident status and U.S. citizenship, while those who are apprehended at sea are sent back to Cuba.

"We are not planning to institute change with respect to wet foot/dry foot, but we do regularly, again, look at our broader migration policies," Rhodes said. "We have a dialogue with the Cubans about those issues. We've worked very closely with our Central American partners as they've dealt with this influx of Cubans, who are making their way to the United States.

"So we will be addressing the migration issue. But again, our focus is on how can conditions improve in Cuba, so that over time, there's more economic opportunity and less of a need, frankly, for Cubans to have to pursue opportunity elsewhere."

Rhodes admitted the Obama administration is not satisfied with Cuba's progress on human rights.

"I don't think we've been satisfied to date, and frankly, I think we're always going to have differences with this government because they have a different political system."

Rhodes said President Obama nevertheless is visiting Cuba next month "because we believe not going and isolating Cuba doesn't serve to advance those issues. That we will be in a better position to support human rights, and to support a better life for the Cuban people by engaging them and raising these issues directly. And whether that's individual human rights cases we're concerned about, whether that's the types of reforms that could broaden opportunity for the Cuban people, or whether that's just how do we directly engage Cuban civil society, so that we are speaking out for the values that we support?

"Again, in our judgment, engagement is a far more effective means of addressing those issues than isolation."

According to the Pew Research Center, 43,159 Cubans entered the U.S. via ports of entry ("dry feet") in fiscal year 2015, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data obtained through a public records request.

This represents a 78 percent increase over the previous year, when 24,278 Cubans entered. And those 2013 numbers had already increased dramatically after the Cuban government lifted travel restrictions.

By comparison, in fiscal 2011, just 7,759 Cubans came into the U.S., Pew reported.

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