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Obama Ends Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot for Cubans

Barack Obama eliminated the wet-foot, dry-foot policy that favored Cuban immigration. He arrives in Havana with his family in this March 2016 photo, the first president to visit Cuba in over 50 years. /White House photo

No more wet-foot, dry-foot for Cubans. In a surprise move, President Barack Obama ended the policy that gave favored status to Cuban immigrants, including permanent residence after one year.

The presidential decision, effective immediately and issued just one week before Obama leaves office, orders that Cuban immigrants be treated the same as other immigrants as part of Obama’s effort to continue to normalize relations with Cuba.

Public reaction was mixed.

“Cuba Libre?!?” asked Peter Vivaldi on  Facebook in response to the news that reverberated across Florida this week.

“Los cubanos se quedaron con los pies fríos,” wrote another on Facebook. (Cubans are left with cold feet.)

Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot Decision

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security outlined the decision Thursday in a 40-minute call with reporters.

• Cuban immigrants already in the United States awaiting permanent residency can remain here.

• The United States can return Cuban nationals ordered out of the United States up to four years after arriving here, compared with two years previously.

• The annual immigration lottery that allows 20,000 Cubans to immigrate to the U.S. remains unchanged, as does the Cuban family reunification program that expedites immigration processing.

• The new policy ends the Cuban medical parole program under which the island’s medical professionals could enter the U.S.

The wet-foot, dry-foot policy,  first declared by former President Bill Clinton to address a refugee crisis and as part of long-standing hostilities with Cuba, was a sore point with other immigrants who questioned its fairness.

Unfair and Inhumane

Undocumented Haitians, for instance, were returned to their country whether intercepted at sea or on land, while undocumented Cubans were returned only if intercepted at sea.

“Ya llegaste!” onlookers shouted to Cuban refugees rushing to land on a South Florida beach before the U.S. Coast Guard could stop them a couple of years ago. (You have arrived!)

“The United States will now treat Cuban migrants in a manner consistent with how it treats others,” DHS stated.

Critics charged the policy encouraged Cubans to make the perilous journey across the Florida Strait in rickety rafts in hopes of landing in the Sunshine State, home to the largest population of Cubans – 1.3 million – outside of Cuba.

Many died doing so, including most famously the mother of Elián González, the Cuban boy who miraculously survived a journey after all had perished, creating a custodial tug of war between the United States and Cuba. González ultimately was returned to Cuba, angering many South Florida Cubans.

Although the move came as a surprise, it had been speculated about once the United States and Cuba entered diplomatic talks in 2014. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for instance, raised the issue during his presidential campaign.

Rubio Questioned Policy

Rubio said he was open to modifying wet-foot, dry-foot, saying it was difficult to justify under normalized relations between the two countries.

“When you have people who are coming and a year and a day later are traveling back to Cuba 15 times a year, 12 times, 10 times, eight times, that doesn’t look like someone who is fleeing oppression,” Rubio told the Associated Press in a story published November 2015.

Cuban immigration spiked in the last two years as anxiety grew about a potential change in policy, many taking an alternate but equally dangerous route through Central America to cross the U.S.- Mexico border.

Spike in Cuban Entries

Over 46,600 Cubans entered the country illegally in fiscal year 2016, compared with nearly 24,300, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. About two-thirds entered through the Laredo, Texas-Mexico border, Pew Hispanic data show.

The elimination of wet-foot, dry-foot is likely to have political and Florida demographic repercussions down the line. It’s unclear whether President-elect Donald Trump will unravel normalization of relations with Cuba, although Trump indicated he might do so while campaigning for president.

Obama’ s move also puts Trump in a pickle. About half of Cuban-Americans voted for Trump – a significantly higher proportion than other Latino voters – helping to award Florida to Trump in last November’s election.

Down the Line

Also, if Cuban immigration slows, population increases among other Latino groups is likely to loom larger, particularly in Florida, where most Cubans take up residence, regardless of point of entry.

Already, Puerto Ricans number over 1 million in Florida, and in the long-term may surpass the state’s Cuban population of 1.3 million.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor