Cuban Migrants on Deadly Journey to U.S. Wrongfooted by Obama

The abrupt end to the decades-old ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy for Cubans has quiet support from Trump.


TAPACHULA, Mexico — The couple wiped away beads of sweat as they sat in the December sun outside of the 21st Century Migration Station, Mexico’s largest immigration detention facility. Other clusters, with people from Haiti, Cameroon, and Honduras, waited listlessly for an official to emerge, but this couple stuck it out. Most migrants had little more than the clothes on their backs; these two, in contrast, sat behind a wall of matching luggage, marking them immediately as Cubans, people with a built-in edge when it comes to reaching American shores and staying there for good.

The man, who identified himself only as Joe, said he and his wife had traveled from Havana first by plane, then by bus, to reach Mexico. They were awaiting visas that would grant them free passage with no interference from immigration authorities as they continued their trek to the U.S. border.

Their well-kept appearance and nice luggage reflected a confidence migrants from no other country enjoyed: a U.S. immigration policy known as “wet foot, dry foot,” under which if a Cuban reaches U.S. soil, he or she could stay.

Migrants without such a guarantee said they were racing to cross the border in the few weeks before Donald Trump was to be sworn in as the new president. Joe, though, wasn’t worried.  

“He likes to talk,” Joe said in Spanish, but even if Trump tries to close the border, “he is not a dictator. There is Congress and the Senate and other politicians.” He gestured to his wife. “For us, it changes nothing.”

That’s not the case anymore. One month later and almost 5,000 miles away, President Barack Obama on Thursday abruptly ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, just a week before Trump enters the Oval Office.

“Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal,” Obama said in a statement. “We are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.” The old rule was “designed for a different era.”  

Since 1995, the Cuban Adjustment Act has granted those Cubans who make it to U.S. soil virtually guaranteed legal residency and citizenship. If caught making the crossing at sea, though, they are returned — hence “wet foot, dry foot.” The law dates to 1966, when the United States sought to undermine Fidel Castro’s Communist government by opening the door to tens of thousands of Cubans ready to flee the island.

Since the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in December 2014, Havana has stepped up its calls to end the “wet foot, dry foot” rule amid a spike in Cubans leaving the island for U.S. soil and using increasingly dangerous routes. The Obama administration’s move essentially denies the benefits of the Cuban Adjustment Act to new Cuban migrants, though officials still urged Congress to repeal the law.  

“Essentially, what the agreement means is that past is past, but that the future will be different,” Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, said Thursday.

While Trump has railed against his predecessor’s expansive use of executive power, the transition team quietly supports Obama’s midnight-hour executive action. A source close to the incoming administration, requesting anonymity amid a bumpy transition, indicated that Trump is unlikely to restore the immigration policy because transition officials see the move as being in line with his emphasis on “law and order” and tough talk on immigration.

“This is a good change, because the policy will allow us to return criminal aliens to Cuba while having no impact on the rights of legitimate asylum-seekers,” the source said.

Obama administration officials said the timing of the move was intended to catch Cuban migrants by surprise in order to avoid a mass rush to the mainland United States before the deadline and avert a potential humanitarian crisis.

“We did not want to speculate publicly about the likelihood of this change for fear of inviting even greater migration flows,” said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.

Nonetheless, after the announcement, major U.S. border crossings have seen a crush of Cubans camped out and pushing to cross. Others are stranded mid-journey after selling everything they own to pay for it.

Cuba hawks in Congress predictably pounced on Obama’s last-minute change to a decades-old policy. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who is Cuban-American, said the move would just “tighten the noose” that President Raúl Castro has around the neck of the Cuban people. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted that Obama targeted “Cubans seeking a better life in the US.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American, has opposed Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba while supporting reforms to the Cuban Adjustment Act. He discussed the change Thursday night with Vice President-elect Mike Pence. “I am heartened by the fact that in a week we will have a new administration committed to discarding the failed Cuba policy of the last two years,” he said.

Still, the policy shift has plenty of backers. Many Latin American countries viewed the policy as unfair and questioned why poor migrants from El Salvador or Haiti don’t receive the same preferential treatment as Cubans.

“This evens the playing field for migration to the United States,” said a congressional aide, speaking on background.

Recent years have seen a spike in Cuban arrivals, by land and sea, but Cubans have been increasingly trekking through Central America to take advantage of their dryshod privileges. In 2016, more than 7,400 Cubans landed on U.S. soil or were interdicted using the sea route, compared with almost 4,000 in 2014. By land, since 2009, the number of Cubans who’ve reached the Southwest border has increased more than fivefold. Last month, Mexican, Guatemalan, and Honduran immigration officials told Foreign Policy that they’ve seen a large increase in the number of Cubans attempting the journey through their countries to the United States.

Per a prior agreement in the 1990s, the United States accepts 20,000 Cubans a year through a lottery system. Beyond that, in 2015, it allowed in roughly 40,000 Cubans without a visa, Rhodes said. Last year, the United States received 54,000 such Cubans.

“Cubans were essentially stuck [in Central American countries] and then facing a very difficult and dangerous journey to our Southern border in some cases,” Rhodes said.

In Tapachula, before Christmas, a young Cuban in a migrant shelter just across Mexico’s border with Guatemala talked about just how “difficult and dangerous” that journey was — and why he’d do it again.

In early November, Geniel García flew from Cuba to Guyana, then traveled by boat to Venezuela to skirt patrols. Then he walked across the border into Colombia. He then girded himself for the most hellish portion of the trip, an eight-day trek to Panama across the dense jungle known as the Darién Gap, a name many migrants cannot say without a shudder. From Panama, he took a bus to Costa Rica and then another from there, managing to avoid authorities in Nicaragua, which has cracked down on migrants. Then, he mostly walked across Honduras and Guatemala for 400 miles to reach Mexico.

So far, it had cost him about $4,000, he said, standing between two endless rows of bunk beds in the shelter. But he knew others who’d paid far more.

Why risk kidnappings, extortion, and physical extremes of the infamous land route, rather than chance the comparatively short distance across the Florida Straits? “The sea is very dangerous,” he said, as if the choice was obvious.

“Of the two options,” he continued in Spanish, “I would take this any day.” Behind him in the shelter, a handful of other Cubans nodded in agreement.  

As a poultry and livestock health specialist who’d trained in Europe and Africa, García was confident he’d get a job in Texas, where he planned to join a cousin. He was careful to avoid politics, motioning as if he was zipping up his lips and throwing away the key when referring to Castro, who’d just died weeks before. He made the same motion when referring to Trump, smiling.

“He says if you want to work you will be fine, and I want to work,” he said of the president-elect. For Cubans, he said, “There isn’t a problem.”

Garcia made it to U.S. soil just before Christmas and is now living in Houston. It’s a problem for other Cubans now.

Photo credit: JOE RAEDLE/Staff

John Hudson contributed to this report.

Reporting for this article was also supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.


Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola