End of “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” Could Leave Thousands of US-Bound Cubans Stuck South of the Border

Lead Photo: People look on at a Cuban migrant boat that brought 12 people and a dog to the beach on September 15, 2015 in Miami Beach, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
People look on at a Cuban migrant boat that brought 12 people and a dog to the beach on September 15, 2015 in Miami Beach, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Read more

When President Barack Obama announced the end of the 22-year-old “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy that has given Cubans a path to residency, it sent shockwaves throughout the nation. For the Cubans who made the treacherous trip to the United States only to miss their chance by a few hours or days, it caused heartache, confusion, and a new set of complications.

On Thursday, the Obama Administration put an immediate end to the immigration policy – an update to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act which guaranteed political asylum to any Cuban who set foot on US soil – introduced by President Bill Clinton in the 90s. Since Obama first revealed that the US and Cuba sought to restore diplomatic ties in late 2014, many feared that it would mean the end of the preferential immigration policy. As a result, the number of Cubans coming into the United States surged in the last few years, and the US’ southern border saw an unprecedented number of Cubans. Customs and Border Protection Statistic reveal that 34,600 Cubans entered through the Laredo sector, which stretches from Del Rio to Brownsville and has become the place where more Cubans enter than any other in the US.

Last week, José Antonio Batista Silva, Yuniesky Marcos Roque, and his son, Kevin, became the last three known beneficiaries of “wet foot, dry foot.” As Yuniesky made it across with his son, it was a bittersweet moment. “[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.”

At around 4 p.m. on Thursday at the Laredo port of entry, the mood began to change. Yuri Rodríguez, 41, recalls seeing US border officials laughing after learning that Obama undid “wet foot, dry foot,” according to the Huffington Post. By that point, Yuri had filled out his paperwork, and officials assured him that everyone on the bridge would get to cross. However, the line moved languidly and by 9 p.m., officials stopped welcoming Cubans into the country, leaving many in limbo.

As US-bound Cubans review their options, some have decided to wait in Mexico for a possible reversal. With president-elect Donald Trump’s impending inauguration, there’s hope that he will enact the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy once again. When news broke that Obama ended the protection, Trump remained quiet. He previously criticized the law and called it unfair. “I don’t think that’s fair. I mean why would that be a fair thing?” Trump told the Tampa Bay Times. “You know we have a system now for bringing people into the country, and what we should be doing is we should be bringing people who are terrific people who have terrific records of achievement, accomplishment. … You have people that have been in the system for years [waiting to immigrate to America], and it’s very unfair when people who just walk across the border, and you have other people that do it legally.”

What Trump will do next is debatable, but it’s clear that Obama has put him in a tough position. Re-establishing the policy is in direct contradiction to his hardline stance on immigration, and as The Economist points out, it makes it harder for Trump to undo the progress the United States has made with Cuba without angering his base of supporters.

It’s unknown how many Cubans were making their way to the United States when “wet foot, dry foot” ended, but as many as 500 awaited documentation in southern Mexico, so they could continue their journey. Now, their final destination is less obvious. Some believe that returning to Cuba is not an option. 33-year-old Ernesto Vázquez arrived to Nuevo Laredo one day too late. He flew into Guyana and then traveled through Brazil, Panama, Central America, and into Mexico. Now, he fears retribution if he’s sent back to Cuba. He believes that the government will make it difficult to reintegrate and that they’d view him as a gusano, a derogatory term reserved for Cubans who have fled. His girlfriend, Lilian, agrees. “Once you leave, and you return as a deportee, they treat you as if you were their enemy,” Lilian told the Huffington Post.

Florida International University Professor Michael Bustamante, who studies Cuba, said that while it’s true that the government has demonized returning Cubans in the past, he doesn’t believe that will continue to happen. According to the White House, the the end of “wet foot, dry foot” came at the very tail end of Obama’s Administration because it took this long for Cuba to agree to accept deportees from the US.

People have varied thoughts, just as they do with immigration in general, on the end of this rule. Some believe that “wet foot, dry foot” is outdated, because those coming from Cuba today seek economic refuge, not a safe haven. Others feel that this now puts Cubans and the rest of Latin American immigrants on an even playing field. And still others aren’t celebrating the end of “wet foot, dry foot” because it puts everyone further from being able to enjoy similar protections afforded to Cuban immigrants for decades.

As Cuban immigrants find themselves under new circumstances for the first time in half a century, people like Dayani Lozano are finding ways to help. Last week she launched a GoFundMe campaign to help Cubans stuck in transit between Cuba and the United States. “We are raising funds to transport the [clothing] and food that we gathered to the Cuban people stranded [at] the US borders,” the page reads. “We are receiving lots of donations. They have no shelter, no food, no bedding, no clothes, no soap, no [medicine.] They money that we gather will pay shipping expenses.” So far, the campaign has raised nearly $7,000. To contribute, visit the GoFundMe page.