What happens with Cubans who’ve benefitted from the wet foot-dry foot policy and are here now, or with those caught in transition?

By Zoe Davis, Medill, Immigrant Connect

Consider this, a man and his family sold all their belongings to leave Cuba. They paid human smugglers and traveled via an uncertain journey that took almost a month and a half. Expecting to be allowed into the US even without proper paperwork, they were shocked to find out that the decades-old policy that allowed Cubans who reached US soil to stay and be able to apply for a green card (lawful permanent residency status) after only one year of residency had been terminated. Now, they and others are stranded at the border, forced to either return home to Cuba, apply for asylum, or to be placed in removal proceedings.

On Jan 12, just a week before the end of his second term as president, Barack Obama announced that he was ending the program that allowed Cubans who make it to US soil without a visa to stay and to have a fast track to citizenship. This policy, known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, was put in place by then-President Bill Clinton in 1995 and required Cubans caught trying to reach the US to return to Cuba, but allowed those who make it to US soil to stay.

The end to this policy also seemed to put an end to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which declared that Cubans were political refugees who needed protection and granted legal status to Cuban citizens, their spouses, and their children who remained in the US for more than a year. Together, the 1966 law and the 1995 policy had given Cubans preferential treatment over other immigrants coming to the US.

Cuban and US flags atop the dashboard of an almadrone car in Havana, Cuba. 2016 (Photo credit: Jack Doppelt)

With the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, the Department of Homeland Security also put an end to an exemption previously given to Cubans that prevented the use of expedited deportation proceedings for those caught at the border or at ports of entry, according to a fact sheet released by the DHS.

Cubans who fear political persecution will still be able to apply for asylum once they reach the US, but immigration courts that determine asylum cases will have no basis to treat petitions from Cubans any differently than from asylum seekers from other countries. Those who don’t qualify for refugee or asylum status can apply for one of the 20,000 migrant visas that have been available to Cuban nationals since 1994.

There have been mixed reactions within the Cuban community in the United States and back on the island to this new policy. Some believe that the end to the preferential treatment is fair, especially when compared to US policies with other Central American and Caribbean countries where people flee persecution, violence and dire economic situations. Others believe that this executive action rewards the Cuban government that has continued to oppress its citizens, even more so since normalization. Many recognize that Cubans aren’t fleeing for political reasons but rather for economic opportunity. And this is not sufficient to qualify for asylum or refugee status.

Havana, Cuba (Photo credit: Zoe Davis)


The number of Cubans who have emigrated to the US has exploded since 2009, according to The New York Times. In fiscal year 2014, almost 4,000 Cubans either landed or were caught en route.  Since the US and Cuba signaled the plan to restore diplomatic relations in 2014, the number has spiked again. In 2016, increased to more than 7,400. More tellingly, Cubans are emigrating by land, taking similar routes to those from other nations south of the border, and by air. In 2016 alone, almost 55,000 Cubans arrived nationwide, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The increase is due in large part to a change in Cuba’s policies. In Jan. 2013, Cuba allowed people to leave the country without exit visas, and rumors were already circulating that the special entry to the US would be overturned soon due to the normalization of diplomatic relations.

At the border, Cubans who are trying to enter the United States move through processing in less than an hour, according to the New York Times. They are fingerprinted and go through criminal and terrorism checks. There are no medical examinations or required vaccines.

Now, Cubans who are in transit to the US from Central America or who have reached the border in Mexico are basically caught in the transition. On occasion, US border patrol agents have given those whom they turned away resources in Mexico, including hospital care and shelter as well as an appointment to return if they wanted to apply for asylum, according to the Miami Herald.

In a story published a few weeks after President Trump’s inauguration, the Miami Herald reported that least 172 Cuban nationals had been detained in the US awaiting removal proceedings.

There is uncertainty as to whether Trump will overturn Obama’s executive action. On the one hand, it seems in conjunction with his hard-stance on immigration. When campaigning back in February of 2016, the Miami Herald reported that Trump said, “I don’t think that’s fair. I mean why would that be a fair thing?” in response to a question about the wet foot-dry foot policy. On the other hand, his new administration opposes the new changes made with the Cuban government and has promised to repeal Obama’s executive orders. The executive action right now is in place and is already in effect.

What happens to those Cubans who have already arrived in the United States seems to depend on if a new executive order reverses the decision of the one made by the Obama Administration or if the Cuban Adjustment Act is repealed by Congress. However for Cubans hoping to come to the United States, special protections allowing them to enter the country and stay without fear of deportation are now gone.

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