JAN. 19, 2017 — There’s always been something peculiar about America’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy — an immigration protocol based on whether a Cuban refugee had stepped on American soil or was floating in some dinghy off the Florida coast. Feet on dry land yielded a welcome mat and a path toward U.S. citizenship. Feet in the water meant a trip back to life with Fidel Castro.
It was part of an overall policy, anchored by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, that fast-tracked legal residency for Cuban migrants coming to the U.S. The act reflected Washington’s concern over Cubans fleeing persecution from Castro’s oppressive regime. Wet foot, dry foot emerged in the mid-1990s, when thousands of Cubans fled the island in boats and makeshift rafts built from doors and inner tubes in a desperate, dangerous sojourn across the Florida Straits. President Bill Clinton reached an agreement with the Castro government to turn back Cubans intercepted at sea. But those able to set foot on U.S. land were allowed to stay.
President Barack Obama shut down wet foot, dry foot last week, a logical step in his push to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Will President Donald Trump let the change stand? It’s hard to predict, based on his typically contradictory musings about Cuba. But he should.
America’s policy has rested on the premise that Cubans leaving their country were fleeing political persecution — and Trump has noted, correctly, that the Cuban people still are not able to worship freely or criticize their government without consequences. But what about refugees fleeing abuses in Syria or Venezuela, for example? They are not automatically welcome here.
Many Cubans are drawn to the U.S. by economic motives. They simply want a better life, as do the legions of immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and the rest of Central America. But those migrants have never had the leg up enjoyed by their Cuban counterparts, who are presumed to be refugees from a brutal government.
Obama’s move to normalize relations with Cuba foreshadowed the end of wet foot, dry foot, encouraging many Cubans to attempt a crossing while they still could. Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard reported nearly twice as many Cubans either arrived by sea or were turned back.
It’s clear the policy change will create hardship for some. Cubans en route to the U.S. — either by boat or via the Mexican border — are out of luck. In some cases, families have been cleaved. The Associated Press told the story of Luis Alberto Rodriguez, who arrived in Laredo, Texas, on New Year’s Eve, hoping his wife and two children would soon join him. He wept when he heard about Obama’s announcement, uncertain when he would see his family again.
Will Trump be swayed by such stories? Does his tough talk about Muslim and Mexican immigrants suggest a similarly hard-line stance toward Cubans? Trump hasn’t articulated a Cuba policy yet. Instead, he has contradicted himself, saying during the presidential campaign that the “concept of opening with Cuba is fine,” and then a month later threatening to scrap detente with Cuba if Havana failed to embrace religious and political freedom for Cubans.
Questioned specifically about wet foot, dry foot, Trump told the Tampa Bay Times in early 2016 that “I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, why would that be a fair thing?” But in August, he told the Miami Herald that he hadn’t made a decision about whether to discontinue the policy. Now that the decision has been made by Obama, the question is whether Trump will undo it.
He should let it stand.
As Trump formulates his policy toward Havana, he should think about the fallout if normalization with Cuba unravels. Five decades of embargo and diplomatic dead air have not brought Cuba any closer to democratic and human rights reform. There should be no turning back.