Is it time to revise the Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot policy?


As an amendment to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, the Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot policy went into effect in 1995 under the Clinton administration. Officially named as the U.S.-Cuba Immigration Accord, this policy allows Cuban migrants who make it to U.S. soil the chance to pursue a fast track to permanent residency. Though migrants who are intercepted by the United States Coast Guard at sea are sent back to Cuba or to a third country, those who make it to American soil are eligible to apply for an immigrant visa after residing in the country for over a year and a day and are then eventually able to become U.S. citizens.

The reasoning for putting this policy in action was well intentioned at the outset. The U.S. government sought to provide refuge to Cuban people fleeing from the oppressive Communist government. Congress in fact designed this bill as a way to protect the 165,000 Cubans who had taken refuge in the United States while their immigration status was in limbo. As a result of President Obama’s late 2014 decision to establish diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, however, the reasoning for keeping the policy in effect is not so clear. Though the communist reign persists in Cuba, many senators and immigration organization spokespersons maintain that with new normalized relations between the two countries, the outdated immigration policies must also end. Many believe that this policy no longer provides refuge to Cubans who are fleeing political oppression but rather to ones who are leaving their country purely for economic reasons. For instance, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) president stated that the law is “an outdated relic of the Cold War. Continuing this policy serves no national interest and is perpetuated purely for domestic political purpose.”

The policy does not sit well with some Cuban leaders and Cuban American lawmakers either, many of who state that it is the “main incentive and principal stimulus for illegal immigration.” Even those who have previously made the journey across the ocean have stated that with normalized relations, it may be proper to get rid of Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot. Now, after President Obama’s announcement, many Cubans worry that the fear of a policy reform has sparked mass exodus of Cubans to the United States—resulting in a 117 percent increase, from December 2013 to December 2014, in Coast Guard apprehensions of Cubans attempting to make the journey.

Regardless of those opinions, the Obama administration maintains that it will not overturn the Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot policy. The administration’s focus instead remains on ensuring that the Cuban people have the power to decide their own future. This decision is applauded by some who maintain that “[u]ntil Cuba is a democracy, people should be treated as refugees.” However, the decision will be met with many adverse opinions from Congress and other government officials who maintain that the policy is due for an update. For instance, Phil Peters, a former State Department official under President Reagan and President Bush, argues that a revision of the policy should require Cubans to “demonstrate political persecution, as migrants from other countries do.”

The Obama administration will soon have to face its adversaries in the Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot debate, as just two days ago, U.S. Representative Paul Gosar, a republican from Arizona, introduced a bill to repeal the policy. Through his proposed legislation, the Ending Special National Origin-Based Immigration Programs for Cubans Act of 2015, Gosar seeks to repeal the “outdated policies” which “provide amnesty to Cuban aliens” at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars. Gosar states that by refusing to entertain the idea of a repeal, the Obama Administration has circumvented the nation’s system of checks and balances. Additionally, he wonders why the president has decided to normalize relations, yet continue to treat Cuban immigrants different than those from other countries. Gosar is not alone in this sentiment. Phil Peters, for instance, has stated that “there is no reason for Cubans to be the chosen people of U.S. immigration policy. . . regardless of need or circumstance.”

Regardless of the Obama administration’s initial decision, one thing is clear: it is time to reform and rework the existing framework under the Cuban Adjustment Act in light of the United States’ new normalized relations with Cuba.

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