By: Miguel Fernandez
The long standing “Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot” Policy is gone. On January 12, 2017, just before leaving office, President Barack Obama ended the 20-year-old policy that has allowed most Cuban refugees who reach United States soil to stay and become legal permanent residents. President Obama stated, “[e]ffective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal. By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.”
This policy has its roots from the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) of 1966. The communist take-over in 1959 initiated the mass exodus of Cubans; in that year alone, nearly 300,000 Cubans fled to the United States seeking asylum. In 1966, then President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the CAA, which allowed any native or citizen of Cuba, who had been physically present for at least one year, to enter the United States as a permanent resident and eventually claim citizenship.
The United States amended the CAA in 1995 to include the “Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot” policy. The policy was added to allow refugees to flee the economic ruin due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuban migrants found at sea were considered to have “wet feet” and were sent back home. However, Cuban migrants who touched United States soil were able to claim “dry feet” and qualify for legal permanent resident status and eventually citizenship. Additionally, the law made an exception for Cubans who were caught at sea and were able to prove, through clear and convincing evidence, that they were vulnerable to persecution.
Over the last half-century, countless Cuban migrants have lost their lives at sea making the perilous 90-mile crossing, in many cases on homemade rafts or boats. This favored treatment has brought substantial criticism over the past years. Refugees from other Latin American countries, such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic, have fled economic hardship on the same boats as Cubans, but have been returned to their homelands.
Rumors that the policy would be repealed circulated in 2014 when the two countries began talks of normalizing relations. This led to a surge of Cubans fleeing to the United States. According to the White House, prior to the announcement of opening diplomatic relations 24,278 Cubans reached the United States. In 2015, the number nearly doubled (43,159) and then surpassed 54,000 in 2016.
The United States will still accept at least 20,000 Cubans each year through traditional immigration channels, on the condition that Cuba accepts the return of repatriated citizens. President Obama stated, “[t]he United States, a land of immigrants, has been enriched by the contributions of Cuban-Americans for more than a century. Since I took office, we have put the Cuban-American community at the center of our policies. With this change we will continue to welcome Cubans as we welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our laws.”
President Obama’s decision came eight days before President Trump was inaugurated. The decision to repeal the policy creates uncertainty. Why repeal a policy that can be reinstated as soon as President Trump is inaugurated? The policy actually places Trump in a catch-22. On the one hand, if President Trump chooses not to reinstate “wet-foot dry-foot”, he runs the risk of disenfranchising the Cuban-American vote, which helped him win Florida. On the other hand, if he does reverse the policy, he’ll reestablish a special residency privileges for Cubans who are here illegally.
Defending a decision to reinstate the “Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot” policy will be difficult given the recent executive order on immigration. President Trump’s recent executive order bars the entry of any refugee who is awaiting resettlement in the United States. It also prohibits all Syrian refugees from entering the United States until further notice. Additionally, it bans the citizens of seven countries—Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen—from entering the United States on any visa category.
President Trump’s position remains unclear. However, when asked about the policy in an interview last year, he stated “I don’t think it would be fair. You know we have a system now for bringing people into the country, and what we should be doing is we should be bringing people who are terrific people who have terrific records of achievement, accomplishment. . . . You have people that have been in the system for years [waiting to immigrate to America], and it’s very unfair when people who just walk across the border, and you have other people that do it legally.” With no known plan on the books, it appears that the “Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot” policy has dried up, for now.