The United States put an end to migratory benefits to Cubans
Latinamerica Press 2/6/2017
Former US President Barack Obama repealed the “wet foot/dry foot” policy that protected Cuban migrants.
Different countries began to repatriate Cuban migrants trying to enter the United States after President Barack Obama (2009-2017) put an end on Jan. 12, just eight days before the end of his mandate, to the migratory benefits that Cubans had enjoyed since the decade of the 60’s.
Up until that date, any Cuban citizen who touched US soil could remain legally in the country and be eligible for permanent residency status, but from now on, all Cuban nationals who want to travel to the United States must do so by applying and obtaining a visa.
“Today, the United States is taking important steps forward to normalize relations with Cuba and to bring greater consistency to our immigration policy,” said Obama in a statement. “The Department of Homeland Security is ending the so-called ‘wet foot/dry foot’ policy, which was put in place more than 20 years ago and was designed for a different era. Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with US law and enforcement priorities. By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.”
“The Cuban government has agreed to accept the return of Cuban nationals who have been ordered removed, just as it has been accepting the return of migrants interdicted at sea,” added the statement.
The “wet foot/dry foot” policy” was put in place in 1995 during the term in office of former President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) stemming from a crisis presented by thousands of Cubans who ventured in rafts into the ocean to reach the US coast, fleeing from the economic debacle in the island as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tightening of the embargo towards Cuba. Under this policy, a person intercepted in US territorial waters (“wet foot”) would not be admitted and would be sent back to Cuba or to a third country, while those who made it to shore (“dry foot”) could remain in the United States and be expedited permanent residency, in accordance to the Cuban Adjustment Act.
The Adjustment Act, still in effect, was approved in 1996 to facilitate the admission of Cubans into the United States as refugees to live and work there legally. From now on, barely a year after having entered the US with a visa, a Cuban citizen can benefit from the Adjustment Act. For the Cuban government, the norm promotes the irregular emigration from Cuba to the US, particularly of highly qualified professionals. The statement issued by Obama also announced the end of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program that allowed preferential treatment to Cuban medical personnel, who will also not be able to request asylum in any of the US embassies and consulates in the world.
Thousands in limboThe Cuban government saluted the decision, which it considered “an important step forward in the advance of bilateral relations”, although the Cuban authorities had to make concessions, including accepting the return of some 3,000 Cubans with deportation orders. Among them are those who left in boats from the port of Mariel in 1980 after more than 10,000 people forced their way into the Peruvian Embassy there. Then President Fidel Castro authorized Cuban exiles in Miami who wanted to take their relatives, to dock their boats in Mariel.
Between Apr. 15 and Oct. 31, 1980, more than 125,000 Cubans abandoned Cuba, including some 4,000 inmates convicted of murder and other serious crimes. As they did not have relatives in the US and after the authorities verified their criminal status, many of them ended up in US jails. Although some were released over time, they never received the US residency or citizenship.
According to news reports, approximately 370,000 Cubans entered the US during the Obama administration. Also, 175,000 non-immigrant visas were granted. As of 2013, the US Census Bureau calculated Cuban residents to be 2 million and US citizens of Cuban origin to be 8 million.
Those who are in limbo because of Obama’s decision are the thousands of Cubans who were trying to reach the US from other countries. Since the announcement of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in December 2014, emigration accelerated — using new land routes through the continent — faced with the fear that the migratory privileges would be eliminated, such as it finally did happen. While 25,000 Cubans entered the United States in 2014, that figure doubled in 2016.
This forced various Latin American countries to toughen migratory policies to prevent a massive influx of migrant Cubans. Of those who entered the United States last year, 90 percent did so by crossing the border with Mexico. A crisis erupted in Central America in November of last year after Nicaragua prevented the entry of Cubans in route to the United States. Some 8,000 were left stranded in Panama and Costa Rica, and added to that was the decision of Ecuador to require a visa from Cuban citizens. In 2016 alone, Panama received 27,000 Cuban migrants.
The number of Cuban citizens that find themselves immobilized in different countries in the region is unknown. According to the International Organization for Migration, until mid-2016 the flow of Cubans between Panama and Costa Rica was 200 per day. Likewise, the National Institute of Migration of Mexico last year issued exit permits to some 10,000 Cubans to cross the border into the United States.
The situation could reverse itself if the current US president Donald Trump — who took the oath of office on January 20 — chooses to reverse Obama’s decision. However, his hard stance rhetoric against migration would lack coherence if he allowed the free entry to Cuban citizens, while at the same time deporting hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the country in irregular situation, just as he offered to do after he was elected.
“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, we have a lot of these people, probably two million, it could be even three million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate,” he said in a television interview.
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