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End Of 'Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot' Means Cubans Can Join Ranks Of 'Undocumented'

A Cuban migrant bound for the U.S. by way of Central America rests in a shelter in Costa Rica in November 2015. Until President Obama ended the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy on Thursday, Cubans who reached U.S. soil either by sea or land were allowed to stay and seek permanent residency.
Ezequiel Becerra
AFP/Getty Images
A Cuban migrant bound for the U.S. by way of Central America rests in a shelter in Costa Rica in November 2015. Until President Obama ended the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy on Thursday, Cubans who reached U.S. soil either by sea or land were allowed to stay and seek permanent residency.

There's a popular saying in Spanish — O todos en la cama, o todos en el suelo. It conveys a selfless commitment to equal treatment, and translates roughly like this: Either we all get the bed, or we all get the floor.

Among many immigrants in the U.S., there's been a feeling that when it comes to the spoils of U.S. immigration policy, the government has given Cubans the bed all to themselves, while it has relegated others — Mexicans, Haitians, Central Americans — to the floor.

This is because of the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which since 1995 has granted Cubans who touch American soil a privilege not afforded other immigrants who come without a visa: the right to stay and get on a fast track to citizenship.

This special treatment ended this week when, in the final days of his administration, President Obama announced an abrupt end to the policy, a capstone to his two-year-old effort to re-establish relations with Cuba. Effective immediately, Cubans arriving on U.S. soil without a visa will be treated just like any other immigrant. They will be turned away.

This does not mean Cubans will stop coming.

"What it means," said Florida International University political scientist Eduardo Gamarra, "is that for the first time, we're going to have undocumented Cubans. And how the Cuban community responds to that is going to be very interesting."

For decades, Cubans have occupied a rarefied station, particularly among the Latino population of the United States. Because those arriving in the U.S. after Fidel Castro's ascension in 1959 were seen as fleeing political persecution, the U.S. generally allowed them to stay. In 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allowed Cubans to get green cards after being in the U.S. for two years, later reduced to a single year. Though the Cuban government opposed these policies, they were the status quo until 1994, when the U.S. agreed to amend the rules.

Wet-foot, dry-foot allowed only those Cubans who made it to U.S. soil to stay. Those caught at sea were to be turned away. The stated hope was that the threat of getting repelled would discourage Cubans from risking their lives on rickety boats. But they kept coming, and once here, a green card was pretty much ensured.

Leaving their country has always carried risk for Cubans, as it has for other immigrants. But unlike for their counterparts, the specter of illegality and all its repercussions (see: the 2016 presidential election) has not applied to Cubans. They have never really had to worry, for example, about deportation once they've made it to the U.S. This privilege has affected in fundamental ways the identity that Cuban-Americans have forged both in terms of their place in American society and in relation to other Latino groups.

"Cubans have never been, and have never seen themselves, as 'illegals,' or even, particularly, as a minority group," said Guillermo Grenier, a sociologist at FIU who is Cuban-American. "They have never seen themselves as anything other than added value to this country. It's part of the Cuban exceptionalism narrative that is just as strong as the American exceptionalism narrative."

The dynamics here are complex. That stems in part from the fact that most of the Cubans who fled Castro's regime soon after the 1959 revolution were political exiles, not economic migrants. They were of the largely white middle class whose property and businesses Castro seized and nationalized. Beginning in the '60s, these exiles used their entrepreneurial drive to turn Miami into a vibrant frontier city.

That's always been a schism impeding solidarity between Cubans and other Latino groups.

Over the decades, this set Cubans apart from many other Latinos in the U.S., who aside from tending to be economic migrants also lacked the legal status that would have allowed them to achieve their full potential. Even as the makeup of the Cuban influx began to change in the '80s and '90s — with more Cubans coming for economic reasons — wet-foot, dry-foot allowed them a unique confidence in their place in the United States.

"That's always been a schism impeding solidarity between Cubans and other Latino groups," Grenier said. Though it has rarely led to full-blown tension, it has been more evident at times, as it was last year when large groups of Haitians and Central-Americans seeking asylum found themselves stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border while long lines of Cubans got through.

"The policy has clearly contributed to that," Grenier said.

The fact that Cuban-Americans, unlike other Latinos, have traditionally been a reliable conservative voting block has also contributed to this schism. And even as the Cuban-American political center has shifted to the left in recent years, Grenier said, there is a built-in distance when it comes to issues like immigration between the young Cubans marching for immigrant rights and the Mexicans, Guatemalans and Colombians with whom they're linking arms.

"It's a feeling of solidarity with other Latinos and their plight," Grenier said. "You see young Cubans fighting for the other guy."

Grenier said he expects the end of wet-foot, dry-foot to gradually change notions of Cuban-American identity as newer migrants become subject to the construct of "illegality" that drives so much of the policy and rhetoric around immigration in the United States.

While before, young Cubans were fighting for the other guy, "now you're going to be fighting for yourself," Grenier said. "You're going to have a horse in the race."

Gamarra said Cubans in the U.S. are going to find their community stratifying in ways familiar to other Latino groups.

"You're going to have privileged and nonprivileged Cubans," he said. "You're going to find the phenomenon of people trying to demonstrate that they were here before yesterday. You're going to find mad rushes to find ways to become documented."

At the same time, Gamarra says the end of wet-foot, dry-foot will not necessarily usher in a level playing field. Obama kept in place a policy that grants roughly 20,000 visas to Cubans annually, a relatively large number for an island of 11 million people.

Nonetheless, Gamarra said the policy's end may strengthen solidarity between Cubans and other Latinos, "because we aren't all going to be on the bed together," he said. "We're all going to be on the floor."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 14, 2017 at 7:00 PM HST
A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a pull quote to political scientist Eduardo Gamarra. The quote belongs to sociologist Guillermo Grenier.
NPR News NPR News
Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
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