The End of Wet-Feet/Dry-Feet
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Hello, I’m Immigration Attorney John Khosravi and today I answer: What was the Cuban Wet-Feet/Dry-Fee Policy and what is going on with Cuban Immigration now? I’ll be providing a brief overview of this history of Modern Cuban Immigration to the United States.
On Jan 12, 2017 President Barrack Obama announced the end of the so-called Wet-Feet/Dry Feet Policy for Cuba. What did this policy mean, where did it come from and what is going to happen now? I will be going through these questions today in this segment of Immigration in the News.
The United States of America and the Republic of Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations on July 20, 2015 after severing ties in 1961 . Cuba had been a protectorate of the United States in the early 1900s, until the Cuban Revolution of 1959, where the Communist Government of Fidel Castro overthrew the U.S. friendly Batista government and took over the Island nation. Since that time relations have been restricted, creating great difficulty for many Cuban families. Despite the close proximity of Cuba with the South East of the United States, many families were torn apart and unable to see each other for decades.
The migration of Cubans to the United Sates became a big political and immigration issue, after Cuba restricted its citizens from leaving the island. To help ease this problem and frustrate the Cuban government, the U.S. passed the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. Through special humanitarian immigration provisions, the law gave permission for hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees to enter the U.S., stay and be able to adjust to Lawful Permanent Resident Status (also known as getting a Green Card). This essentially allowed Cuban nationals that were physically in the U.S. to obtain a Green Card and eventually U.S. Citizenship and bring certain other relatives from Cuba to the United States.
This legal immigration exception for Cubans led hundreds of thousands of them to leave their country in any way they could, many through dangerous boat routes across the waters between the two countries. Thousands perished along the way. These immigrants were known as “Balseros” meaning “Rafters” in Spanish, because of the use of homemade rafts to traverse the waters. Over time, Cubans became one of the top immigrant groups in the U.S.
The escape from the island would happen in several waves through the years. However, the most famous of these mass migrations of Cubans to the U.S. was known as the “Mariel Boatlift” in 1980 due to a sharp downturn in the Cuban economy. Mariel was the name of the Cuban Harbor where the migrants’ boats departed. The Cuban government facilitated this movement and as many as an estimated 100,000 Cubans reached Florida. This created problems for the U.S. as it was discovered that some of the refugees were released from Cuban jails and mental health facilities. The two governments ended the mass migration by agreement that same year. But a steady and continuous flow of refugees continued.
The return of Cuban nationals from the U.S. to Cuba was limited, even those with criminal history, because Cuba had a policy of rejecting the return of its nationals that were “excludable” under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act.
The laws were tweaked in 1994 when President Bill Clinton established a special parole policy known as Wet Feet/Dry Feet when it tried to “normalize” migration between the two countries. The stated objective was to make the process safer, legal and orderly. This included:
Also, the U.S. government, which had referred to those leaving Cuba as exiles or refugees in the past, began calling them migrant[JK12] s - a term that signaled a shift in immigration policy. However, an agreement on the return of immigrants excludable under the Immigration and Nationality Act was not reached.
After this change, those caught at sea would no longer be automatically able to enter the U.S. and obtain immigration benefits. However, they would still be interviewed to see if they fit within the Asylum Law criteria. If approved, they would be held until a third country was found to accept them.
These changes established the Wet Feet/Dry Feet policy: those lucky enough to safely get through the dangerous passage and arrive on U.S. land (Dry Feet), were permitted to stay and eventually become a U.S. person. However, those stopped at sea (Wet Feet), normally by the U.S. Coast Guard, were not.
A consequence of this shift in policy led to a change in Cuban migration patterns as well. Many began using an alternative route through Mexico to enter the U.S., allowing for the creation of Cuban communities outside of Florida, in Texas.
This policy change still faced the very same public and safety issues. In one instance, the U.S. Coast Guard used pepper spray and a water cannon to prevent some Cubans from reaching Florida. In another case, a woman drowned when her boat capsized during interdiction. Finally, the most famous case was that of the 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez whose mother died during the passage. The custody battle over his future played out in the public and ended with an armed raid into his American family’s home to capture him and return him to his father in Cuba.
This has all completely changed now. In its waning days, the Obama Administration turned the page on 5 decades’ worth of U.S. Policy towards Cuba. With a goal to completely normalize and open relations with the country it changed the immigration benefits provided to Cubans:
This immigration program is an exception for Cubans that allows them to enter the U.S. many months before obtaining the Immigrant Visa at the Embassy, and avoided the need for Cuban family members to make the dangerous trek to the U.S. Other immigration programs used by nationals of other countries, such as through family, employment, asylum and the diversity visa (a.k.a. the Green Card lottery) are still accessible.
This all means that for the first time, we are going to have “Undocumented” Cuban immigrants. Many Cubans had foreseen these changes and Cuban migration numbers had spiked recently in preparation for it.
Bonus: US Travel Requirements and Restrictions for Visiting Cuba
US Citizen travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. However, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel. The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba include
1. Family visits;
2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
3. Journalistic activity;
4. Professional research and professional meetings;
5. Educational activities;
6. Religious activities;
7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
8. Support for the Cuban people;
9. Humanitarian projects;
10.Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
11.Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials;
12.And certain authorized export transactions.
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