From “wet foot” by raft to “dry foot” with Uber

By Daniela Grava, Medill, Immigrant Connect

“Hablas español?” he asks me. “Claro,” I answer. Estamos en Miami, after all.

I am in the front seat of an uber on my way back from a friend’s house. A casual night. I can tell my driver is Cuban by his strong accent and difficulty speaking English, not unlike many Miami residents. We discuss in Spanish what our favorite cuisines are. His is Chinese. I ask him if he’s a native of the city. In the most nonchalant manner, he replies that he arrived in the United States by raft from Cuba.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the scenario. It is actually more common than one would think – so common the US initiated the “wet foot, dry foot” policy in 1995 to accommodate the influx of Cubans fleeing to Miami. Although President Obama repealed the policy in the last days of his presidency, it has allowed people who have reached the shore and have “dry feet” to remain in the US, receive permanent US resident status after one year and to later seek citizenship. Those with “wet feet” who are caught between Cuba and the US are sent back. It is the means through which many Cuban-Americans in Miami first arrived. I would have never met my uber driver without it.

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The strange thing is not that he arrived by raft, but how calmly he says it – as if he’s talking about what he had for breakfast. Of course, I had known about the “wet foot, dry foot policy,” but I had never met anyone who mentioned benefitting from it.

Unsure how to proceed in the conversation, I wait for him to tell me more. He explains how he had family and friends who had already left his hometown of Havana for a better life in Florida. He was unhappy with his impoverished living situation and felt like he only had two choices: either to stay, discontented, in his familiar native land where his whole family grew up, or to go to foreign territory with the hope of something better.

Even though my uber driver treats it nonchalantly, I cannot imagine how he must have felt choosing the latter – let alone actually acting on it.

I am also an immigrant to Miami. I experienced the same feelings of being an outsider as my uber driver did after coming. I remember not being able to make friends on my first day of school because I knew how to speak only Spanish and Portuguese. I had no idea how to ask for help or how to get home. I had never felt so out of place. I was five years old and just starting elementary school. Unlike my uber driver, I had my family for support and many years of school to help me learn English.

He, on the other hand, came with some members of his family when he was a teenager, with no place to live and no choice but to learn English on his own. Although I can relate to his experience being here for the first time, I didn’t have to make half the sacrifices he made.

I don’t ask him how he managed to figure all of that out, but I can tell he is happy now. He has a day job in addition to being an uber driver and tells me how most of his family is in Miami now. I remark that it must have been nice for him to have at least moved to the city in the US with arguably the strongest Cuban influence. He says it definitely helps, and he never feels too far from home. He is in a good mood and we continue discussing our favorite foods until I arrive home.

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