For 32-year-old Cuban electrical engineer Yuniesky Marcos Roque and his son, Kevin, crossing the border into the United States on Thursday night was a bittersweet moment. As a border official welcomed Yuniesky and Kevin, President Barack Obama announced the immediate end to the 22-year-old “wet-foot, dry foot” policy. Had they reached the US border patrol agent at the Laredo border just a few minutes later, they would have seen what many others saw: the last Cubans entering the US under the protection of wet foot, dry foot.
“[The agent] told me that my son and I were the last Cubans to be let in,” Marcos said, according to the Miami Herald. “I’m very emotional right now. I came here for him. So he could have a better future. I’m relieved that we made it, but sad for the others waiting on the bridge.”
Introduced by President Bill Clinton, wet foot, dry foot – which guarantees political asylum and a path to residency for Cubans who set foot on US soil – is an update to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. At the end of 2014, President Barack Obama first announced that after five decades of tense relations between the United States and Cuba, the two nations were committed to restoring diplomatic ties. As a result, the number of Cubans coming into the United States surged. Fearing that rapprochement would end the immigration policy, many made the treacherous journey in 2015 – a trend that continued into 2016.
Though an official told Yuniesky and Kevin that on Thursday, they became the last Cubans to freely cross the border, one more made it through: 35-year-old José Antonio Batista Silva. He filed his paperwork before Obama’s announcement, so agents allowed him in. Batista planned to make his way to Kansas City. “Thank God I was able to get in,” he said. “I was the last one.”
The last few years has seen an unprecedented amount of Cubans crossing the US’ southern border. Customs and Border Protection statistics reveal that 34,600 Cubans entered through the Laredo sector, the place where more Cubans enter than any other in the United States. Immigration officials at the Laredo sector – which has ports of entry stretching from Del Rio to Brownsville – has processed more than 6,500 Cubans in the first two months of the government’s current fiscal year.
Thursday, Obama said in a statement, “Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with US law and enforcement priorities. By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries. The Cuban government has agreed to accept the return of Cuban nationals who have been ordered removed, just as it has been accepting the return of migrants interdicted at sea.” The Cuban government has called on Obama to end the Cuban Adjustment Act, which it has never approved of.
Obama’s announcement sent shockwaves throughout the country, and it seems almost everyone has a strong opinion. For many Cubans and Cuban-Americans, however, the decision brought anxiety – for themselves and their loved ones. Alvaro Moreno, 29, made it into the United States on Thursday. “I just learned that I am very fortunate,” he told McClatchy DC. “I crossed the border six hours ago. I was welcomed into the United States, and to now learn this immigration law, this preference that Cubans have is ending has impacted and hurt me. I have friends who are still on their way.”