With just eight days left in his presidency, President Barack Obama announced on Jan. 12 the end to the “wet foot, dry foot” (WFDF) policy for Cuban immigrants. The policy is personal for many Cuban Americans in the United States, especially in Miami, where many still have familial ties to the island nation. The sudden policy change left many University of Miami students with mixed reactions.
The Obama Administration terminated a revision made by former President Bill Clinton in 1995 to the Cuban Adjustment Act. The revision allowed Cubans without a visa who fled to the United States to apply for permanent residency after a year, a provision not granted to immigrants from other countries.
In 1980, Fidel Castro announced all Cubans wishing to leave the island were at liberty to do so through boats leaving from Mariel Harbor. The hundreds of thousands of Cubans arriving in the United States became known as “Marielitos.” Though most of the Marielitos were escaping the political unrest in their home country, some had just been released from prison and committed crimes when they arrived in the United States.
With an influx of Cubans arriving in America on rafts and boats to seek political asylum from the Castro regime during the ‘80s and ‘90s, the revision was made as an agreement between the two countries. Cubans who touched U.S. soil would be allowed to stay, an exemption specific for Cubans. Those who were caught at sea by U.S. officials before touching land would be sent back to the communist-ruled island.
Now, even those who touch land will be sent back.
There are an estimated two million Hispanics of Cuban origin in the United States, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Miami-Dade County is home to 46 percent of the U.S. Cuban-American population. As of fall 2016, 26 percent of UM’s undergraduate student population identified as Hispanic or Latino — many of them of Cuban descent.
Senior Victoria De Cardenas is one of the many students at the university with close ties to Cuba. Calling herself a “one-and-a-half generation Cuban,” with her father born and raised in the United States and her mother born in Cuba. De Cardenas, a Miami native, grew up around Cubans and the WFDF policy; she viewed the regulation as a norm. Although her grandparents arrived in the United States during the ‘70s, well before the implementation of the regulation, De Cardenas said she was torn on how she felt about the Obama Administration’s decision to terminate it.
“I’m kind of on the fence because I want my family that’s in Cuba to be free and have chance and come here legally, but it’s hard to know what’s right and what’s wrong in such a sticky situation,” she said.
De Cardenas said she thought it was “weird timing” for Obama to make a foreign policy decision with just days to leave his legacy.
According to the Director of the University’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, Jaime Suchlicki, WFDF ended in the same way it started: with an agreement made between the United States and Cuba.
“Cuba, since we began the relationship, has been requesting that this thing be terminated. One, because it doesn’t look good for the Cuban government if thousands of Cubans keep leaving the island,” Suchlicki said. “It’s bad for Cuban publicity.”
For Antonia Cofiño, a junior of Cuban descent, Obama’s action to end WFDF was one of the only instances in which she has agreed with Obama and his administration. She said she believes the policy encouraged Cubans to risk their lives coming by sea to the United States.
Cofiño also said many Cubans coming to the United States aren’t actually seeking asylum from the dictatorship of Raúl Castro.
“I’ve seen a lot of Cubans that are not legitimately seeking asylum. They’re coming for more economical reasons than political,” Cofiño said.
The United States, in particular South Florida, is not only home to hundreds of thousands of Cubans but also immigrants from other nations such as Haiti. There are more than 600,000 Haitians living in the United States, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute. For more than 20 years, the U.S. government allowed Cuban immigrants to apply for an expedited American citizenship process, an opportunity not given to other immigrants.
Norah Garçon, a senior whose grandparents emigrated from Haiti to the United States legally, said both sides of her family came to America to escape similar political turmoil to what exists in Cuba but received no preference.
Garçon recalled the story of her mother’s first time voting in Haiti. During that time, Haitians would get a stamp on their hand to indicate that they had voted in the election. The stamp became a sign easily spotted by radical political groups who targeted and murdered those who had voted.
“The country is very unbalanced. It’s very unsafe,” Garçon said. “The transition of power is never smooth.”
With Obama ending the exemption made specifically for Cuban immigrants, all those caught arriving in the United States without visas will be deported. Furthermore, those wishing to become U.S. residents and citizens will all have to go through the same processes of filing proper documentation and waiting for approval without expedition. Becoming a legal resident can take years.
“The end of this ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy is the beginning of a more equal playing field for all immigrants,” Garçon said.
Although now the United States is allowed to send Cuban immigrants back to the island, the number of Cubans fleeing is unlikely to change, Suchlicki said.
“Do you deter Mexicans – when you send them back to Mexico – from returning?” he asked. “The Cubans are going to keep on coming.”