On Thursday, in one of his final acts a president of the United States, Barack Obama ended the “wet foot, dry foot” immigration rule that for the past 21 years has allowed any Cuban who makes it to U.S. soil to stay and become a legal resident.
The latest in a series of policy changes towards the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations effectively normalizes the unreformed Cuban regime. As President Obama said “we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.” Migrants qualifying for humanitarian aid will still be allowed to stay.
The United States has long considered those attempting to leave Cuba as exceptional. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, not only Cubans who made it to U.S. soil, but even those who were intercepted in the water fleeing the communist Castro regime, were allowed to stay and become American citizens.
In the 1990s, in the post-Soviet world, the policy was relaxed under President Clinton to exclude those intercepted in the water and include only those who made it to land, effectively distinguishing between those with “wet feet” and those with “dry feet.”
President Obama ended any remaining exceptions Thursday, as the Cuban government desired. The Daily Wire’s Joshua Yasmeh writes:
The Castro regime has long demanded the U.S. abandon its special treatment of Cuban migrants. Havana argued that such a policy cast unfairly demonized its communist island and gratuitously encouraged its people to make a treacherous and often deadly odyssey north. Never mind the fact that Castro’s thugs were jailing and executing journalists, freethinkers, democracy activists, homosexuals, religious clerics, and dissidents.
The same Obama administration, along with Democrats and some Republicans, has argued for expanding the number of refugees from Syria. Oddly, while hoping to expand access to our shores for some — and at times condemning as lacking compassion those who oppose such a policy — the administration has no problem restricting it for others in what traditionally have been seen as an exceptional circumstances.
Additionally, ABC News reports, “the Cubans gave no assurances about treatment of those sent back to the country, but said political asylum remains an option for those concerned about persecution if they return.”
I wouldn’t trust the Cuban government as far as I could throw it, if it did give assurance about the treatment of those sent back, but in previous times, the United States proved itself a safe haven for Cubans. With this policy change, that consistency is undermined. How much can political asylum be relied upon?
And thus the normalizing of the Castro regime continues. Obama reopened diplomatic ties with Cuba in 2014 and has been working to lift the economic embargo. Though it might be beneficial for Cubans still in Cuba to experience the benefits of relations with the United States — to associate America with freedom and prosperity — allowing Cuban government policy remain unchanged does little to improve their situation.
Furthermore, the essentially unilateral nature of the policy changes amounts to the United States admitting that there really was nothing wrong with the Castro regime and that our policy was wrong. Hollywood has maintained a long love affair with Fidel and Raul, but until this point, the Democratic Party had not officially pretended that the situation of those leaving Cuba to come to the United States was just the same as those coming from any other country.
And interesting question is whether, and how long, this policy will stand. Again, from ABC News:
Obama is using an administrative rule change to end the policy. Donald Trump could undo that rule after becoming president next week. He has criticized Obama’s moves to improve relations with Cuba. But ending a policy that has allowed hundreds of thousands of people to come to the United States without a visa also aligns with Trump’s commitment to tough immigration policies.
The long-held ideal of America as a beacon of hope for those under dictatorial rule is important to the world. Though we have not always upheld it, it remains an ideal to strive for. Without the Cuban government conceding corresponding reforms, this rule change amounts to a move in the wrong direction.