Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

How Will Cuban Migration Change in the Years Ahead?

The Cuban government praised the Obama administration’s ending of the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy. Above, the U.S. Coast Guard interdicts Cuban migrants in the Florida Straits in 2016.

The White House on Jan. 12 ended the so-called “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy, which for two decades had automatically allowed Cubans who reach dry land in the United States to stay. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration announced the end of the policy, which Cuba’s government had long opposed, just eight days before Obama left office. Why did Obama end the two-decade policy? How will the change affect Cuban migration patterns throughout the region? What will President Donald Trump’s policy be on immigration from Cuba?

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.): "The Obama administration’s reversal of the ‘Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot’ policy will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people. Congress was not consulted prior to this abrupt policy announcement, which came with just nine days left in the Obama administration. The Obama administration sought to pursue engagement with the Castro regime at the cost of ignoring the present state of torture and oppression, and its systematic curtailment of freedom. The fact is the recent ill-conceived changes in American policy toward Cuba have rewarded the regime with an economic lifeline while leaving everyday Cubans less hopeful about their futures under a brutal totalitarian dictatorship. And while more needs to be done to prevent the small group arriving from Cuba who may seek to exploit the privileges and freedoms that come with the ‘Wet-Foot Dry-Foot’ policy, those few actors should not destroy our efforts to protect the many who are forced to flee persecution."

Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR): "President Obama’s decision to repeal the ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ policy that allows Cuban illegal aliens to remain in the United States was long overdue. While Cuba remains a repressive dictatorship, Cubans entering illegally are fleeing bad economic conditions, not political persecution. As such, they are no different from other illegal entrants, and affording them special treatment that is not offered to any other nationality cannot be justified. The difference between how the United States treated those picked up at sea from those apprehended on land amounted to a schizophrenic political effort to avoid returning people to Castro’s Cuba, while trying to prevent uncontrolled flotillas of migrants. ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ was not merely unfair and irrational, it was often dangerous. It created an incentive for Cuban migrants to risk their lives making the perilous journey in unseaworthy vessels. It also added to the surge of illegal migrants crossing our southern border in recent years, as Cubans traveled to Central America and made their way north. President Obama took the first step in ending our unwise migration policies regarding Cuba. President Trump should end another Clinton-era policy that guarantees a minimum of 20,000 immigration visas to Cuban nationals each year—a guarantee offered to no other nationality. He must also work with Congress to repeal the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which treats all Cuban migrants as presumptive refugees. Time and circumstance have proven that the law has not only failed to serve U.S. interests, but has failed to bring about desired political change in Cuba."

Jim Kolbe, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona: "Former President Obama’s decision to end the ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Cuban immigration policy only eight days before leaving office was not surprising, but the timing is likely to generate tantalizing speculation. Two possible motivations seem likely. The first possibility is that Obama wanted to follow through on the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba that he initiated last year. The immigration policy was a major irritant for the Cuban government, so changing that policy represents another brick in the normalization process. But a second possibility is that the outgoing president wanted to make things awkward for the incoming president. As a candidate, Trump relied heavily on Cuban-American support in Florida and on its leadership to help pull him across the finish line in that state. That critical voting bloc wants to keep the most relaxed immigration policy possible in place for Cubans trying to reunite with families in the United States. But Trump advocated a hard line on all other immigration—a temporary ban on Muslim entry into the country, a wall between Mexico and the United States, large scale deportation and more. Now he finds himself in an awkward position. Does he maintain the hard line and keep in place the newer, tougher, immigration rules for Cubans seeking refuge in the United States? Or does he carve out one group for special treatment, alienating other groups seeking immigrant status in this country? While President Trump has consistently demonstrated a proclivity for taking unconventional positions, it seems unlikely that he will be able to reverse the outgoing president’s change in policy without experiencing significant ‘blowback’ from his base of voters, who support a hard line on immigration."

Marifeli Pérez-Stable, professor of global and sociocultural studies at the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University: "For a long time, I’ve argued that Cuba needs to become a ‘normal’ country. Until December 2014, U.S. policy bolstered Cuban claims of being exceptional. Cubans stood apart from most other immigrants to the United States. The ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ policy restricted Cubans’ privilege. Before 1995, the U.S. Coast Guard brought all who were picked up at sea to the mainland. Rescinding the 1995 restriction should be applauded. Still, my heart broke at the news. What about the tens of thousands who were waiting to make the trek to the Mexican border? Dreams and hopes were smashed. For doctors who abandoned their missions abroad, the situation is particularly dire. Havana bars them from returning for eight years. If they do, their medical degree is suspended. Congress should deal with their situation. Havana had long wanted the end of the ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ policy. Now, it may have to deal with the pressure-cooker effect, which over time may threaten stability. Cubans will continue to migrate north. Only now they will stand in line with everyone else. And it will take longer. The Trump administration is unlikely to reinstate the status quo for Cubans. His base probably doesn’t know about U.S. special treatment. Being soft on Cubans may not sit well with them. Then again, President Trump likes to be unpredictable."

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