Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, over a million Cubans have flocked to the shores of America in search of greater economic opportunity and political freedom. The “wet foot, dry foot” policy is the US law which made it possible for Cuban immigrants who physically reach American land to legally stay in the United States, as citizens. Now, more than two decades after the law was put in place, the Obama administration makes its final foreign policy decision by putting an end to the act in January of 2017. But to fully understand why Barack Obama decided to overturn the policy, one must first study the history behind “wet foot, dry foot.”
In 1980, over 125,000 immigrants were boated from Cuba to South Florida shores on the Mariel boatlift. This was not the first overwhelming flood of Cuban immigrants to the US, and it would not be the last. For years, people had been seeking asylum from Cuba’s tyrannical regime. When political tensions rose in the 1990’s, many Cuban people feared for their safety amongst the riots in Havana and the threat of violence from the government. The numbers of Cuban immigrants spiked yet again. People were fleeing for their lives, full of fear for the safety of their families. The United states government was reluctant to send these people back to a country that imposed oppressive laws on their existence, or in some cases, wanted them dead. The “wet foot, dry foot policy” was put in place in 1996 under the belief that no person should be condemned to live in a dangerous country. After considering reforms to Castro’s regime, Barack Obama stated: “By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.”
“During my administration, we worked to improve the lives of the Cuban people—inside of Cuba—by providing them with greater access to resources, information, and connectivity to the wider world,” Obama said, “Sustaining that approach is the best way to ensure that Cubans can enjoy prosperity, pursue reforms and determine their own destiny.”
Around 680 Cuban migrants were detained and returned home following the end of the “wet foot, dry foot policy.” Among those who have been detained are Aquilino Caraballo and Georgina Hernandez, an elderly Cuban couple who were taken into custody on January 13 at the Miami international airport. They were taken into custody after being questioned by immigration officers as to the reason for their flight to Miami. Not fully understanding the immigration officer, they said that the purpose of their trip was to visit their daughter but that they wished to stay in the U.S.
Caraballo and Hernandez were placed at the Krome Detention Center in Miami-Dade, where a four-hour-long hearing was to determine their fate. According to relatives and others present at the trial, the hearing was spent discussing the state of Cuba’s government and whether or not Raul Castro’s reforms are actually effective in making Cuba a safer, better place for its citizens. Hundreds of Cuban immigrants seem not to think so, as there are still substantial numbers of people attempting to enter the United States.
“It is a matter of establishing a precedent that it is not only about the people persecuted for political reasons, but rather that the system itself denies all rights [to Cubans],” said Juan Antonio Blanco, director of the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, “What is on trial today is not a person, it is a system.”
(On May 8, Caraballo and Hernandez were denied asylum by a federal court and will be facing deportation anytime soon. This outcome may affect negatively the cases of many other Cubans that are currently in the same situation, retained in Krome or other facilities, waiting for their trials.)