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Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot, No-Foot

It is sad yet hardly surprising that the presidency that was born under the banner of “hope and change” is ending, especially for Cubans and their Cuban-American relatives, with an abrupt and needless change that crushes hope.

Since the early days of the Castro regime, our country has welcomed Cuban refugees with what amounted to an open-door policy. The most recent incarnation of this policy, established in the mid-1990s under President Bill Clinton, has come to be known as “wet-foot, dry-foot.” Cubans who made it to dry American soil were granted immigration “parole” and entitled to permanent resident status after a year and a day in this country; those intercepted at sea would be turned back. In theory, this was supposed to deter dangerous crossings across the perilous Florida Straits. In reality, many Cubans continued to try to make it across on virtually anything that could float, while others braved the jungles, deserts and drug gangs of Mexico and Central America to try to get in by crossing the southern land border.

In a sense, the preferential treatment of Cubans was deeply unfair to the millions of other Latin American refugees whose lives are comparably miserable but whose avenues to obtain legal residency in the United States are considerably narrower. But the policy reflected our principled recognition that Cuba stands alone in this hemisphere for its closed and oppressive political system, its repression of civil rights and peaceful opposition, and its virtual enslavement of its population who – with extremely limited exceptions – have no employment prospects except those offered by a state in whose governance they effectively have no voice. It also reflects practical reality: Cuba is so bad and so near that Cubans will risk their lives to get here, no matter what we do.

Rather than make the moral case that compassion dictates we reform our immigration laws to be more welcoming of non-Cubans too, in the waning days of his administration President Obama (the “deporter-in-chief” who has sent millions back to Mexico and elsewhere) opted instead to slam the door on Cuban emigres’ fingers. With no notice, let alone consultation with anyone other than the government in Havana, Obama terminated the wet-foot, dry-foot policy last week. Cubans, including thousands already in transit, must now claim asylum by demonstrating on an individual basis that they have a well-founded fear of persecution. Such claims will mostly be rejected. Many Cubans will be sent back to face the reality that, in Cuba, practically every single person has a well-founded fear of persecution, especially those who have tried to escape.

Obama wasn’t satisfied merely with changing the policy of welcoming Cuban escapees to live in the United States. He also ended another policy that fast-tracked Cuban doctors for eligibility to practice here. This change was vitally important to the Castro regime, because Cuba makes substantial money by hiring out its doctors to work in foreign countries at high rates, while paying the physicians the same sort of pittance they could earn at home. A top-earning Cuban specialist can earn $67 a month from his or her government.

What did we get in return for this favor to Havana? Mainly an expressed willingness to take back a relative handful of Cuban refugees who have committed crimes (sometimes trivial ones) in the United States or who had criminal records (as determined by the estimable Cuban justice system) in Cuba. But more significant, as always, is Obama’s conceit that normalizing relations with Cuba means he has somehow fostered Cuba’s evolution into a normal country by hemispheric standards – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Though the Miami Herald reported that the deal had been in negotiation for months, the abruptness of its announcement means many Cubans are now caught in limbo. Some Cubans took off with the wet-foot, dry-foot policy in place and landed to find it had been removed. Immigrants who have spent months or years trying to make it to U.S. soil currently find themselves with no assurance their parole requests will be successful. Some will try their luck regardless; the prospect of extended detention in the United States is still better, for some, than the certainty of persecution when they return to Cuba. Many of these cases will end up in our already overextended immigration court system.

Incoming President Donald Trump could, in theory, reverse Obama’s reversal and reinstate the prior policy. Whether he might do so is anyone’s guess, although most people guess he won’t. There was, in fact, considerable sentiment in favor of changes in the policy – especially to prevent people from using it to obtain legal U.S. status and then return to Cuba for business reasons, most likely upon making deals with Cuban officials. An overhaul of broader immigration rules could have been a catalyst for change as well.

Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio told reporters, “In my view, the Cuban Adjustment Act was going to be changed one way or another,” citing abuses of the wet-foot, dry-foot program in the past. Rubio, who is himself Cuban-American, did say he would push to reinstate the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program in a statement following the president’s announcement. He also said that lawmakers should take steps to ensure Cubans are not sent back into serious political persecution. Florida’s Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also criticized Obama’s actions while acknowledging that reform was probably inevitable and necessary.

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of the wet-foot, dry-foot policy. These range from its tacit encouragement of dangerous sea journeys and human smuggling to the fact it removes pressure from the Havana government by encouraging political dissenters to leave home rather than stay and resist. These arguments have greater or lesser merit, and there was every reason for Congress to discuss changes to the Cuban Adjustment Act and existing U.S. policy on the issue.

But as is his wont, Obama chose to short-circuit discussions with those at home who have opposing views and instead cut a deal with an unsavory foreign government in order to burnish (in his own mind, at least) his legacy and foster his policy goals, on the largely disproved notion that the rest of America will in due course recognize his wisdom.

Pity the poor Cubans who feel abandoned by the one country in the hemisphere that has, for over half a century, put policy behind the platitude that they deserve better from their own government. Their hopes for liberty will have a hard time surviving the change that a departing Obama felt himself at liberty to bring.

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