From Dry Foot To Wet Back

When my father bought a Volkswagen Beetle in 1967, my mother was furious. World War II was still fresh in people’s memory, and Americans, Jews, didn’t buy things made in Germany. We were supposed to hate them. The mantra was “Never Again,” and it was drilled into my head as a child.

But my father, who fought in the infantry in WWII, winning a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, told her the war was over. We won. It was time to move on. He wasn’t exactly ready to forgive the Germans for what happened, but he wasn’t going to let hatred guide his decisions forever.

Cubans who escaped Castro loved their island and hated his regime. America hated communism in general after World War II, and Castro was the communist in our backyard. It was completely unacceptable, and as the Cuban Missile Crisis taught us, the threat was real. We embraced Cubans who risked their lives to escape Castro unlike any other group of people.

Flotillas of Cubans braved death to escape, and our Coast Guard and regular people with boats saved them, brought them to our shores, where we took them in as refugees of a cruel communist dictator. Then the Mariel Boatlift happened in 1980, changing our perception. The Marielitos, we were told, weren’t just refugees, but Castro’s way of cleaning house, emptying his prisons and asylums and making them our problem.

2001 Pulitzer Prize photograph of Elian Gonzalez being seized by federal agent on April 22, 2000.

In the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton changed our policy from open acceptance of all Cuban refugees to “Wet Foot/Dry Foot,” if they made it to our shores, we would give them sanctuary. But if they were found in the waters between Cuba and Florida, they were turned back. Or, as eventually happened to Elián González, taken by United States and handed back, in a move the reflected the weakening of our resolve against Cuba.

Inexplicably and unexpectedly, President Obama ended the policy days before the end of his administration and placed Cuban refugees in the same status as any other undocumented immigrant. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson explained the policy shift.

To the extent permitted by the laws of both our countries, the aim here is to treat Cuban migrants in a manner consistent with migrants who come here illegally from other countries, particularly other countries in the same region.  This is a move toward equalizing our immigration policies with regard to those who come here illegally as part of the overall normalization process with the government of Cuba.

What this means is unclear, but it would appear to mean that if other immigrants are illegal, then Cubans should be too, as if there was some spitefulness toward Cubans having it any better than anyone else. The “why” is unexplained, though Cubans tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican and, while efforts were made to appease immigration advocates by an administration that deported more undocumented aliens than all before, Cuban refugees should be as miserable as everyone else.

At Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin calls this unanticipated policy shift “cruel.”

There is absolutely no justification for Obama’s new policy. It is gratuitously cruel towards Cuban refugees, without creating any meaningful benefits. Despite some modest economic reforms, Cuba remains a repressive communist dictatorship whose people suffer massive oppression and poverty brought on by over fifty years of totalitarianism. Indeed, repression of dissent has actually increased since President Obama began to normalize relations with Cuba in December 2014.

If anything, the United States would have done better to end the “wetfoot” portion of the policy and stop turning back Cuban refugees who have the misfortune to be caught at sea. Where a refugee happens to be found by US authorities is a morally arbitrary characteristic that in no way changes their status as victims of brutal tyranny.

Will anyone, anyone at all, champion the Obama Administration’s decision to turn Cuban refugees into the very “wet backs” so beloved by Sanctuary Cities and campuses? But of course.

This policy, which the Obama administration unexpectedly scrapped on Thursday, was misguided for several reasons. It encouraged Cubans to embark on perilous, and often deadly, journeys on rafts across the Florida straits and across borders in South and Central America. It exacerbated Cuba’s brain drain, particularly after 2006 when Washington created a pathway for medical professionals abroad to defect by applying for visas at American embassies. And it unjustifiably gave Cubans preferential treatment while Haitians and Central Americans who were fleeing far more desperate circumstances were deported.

If you won’t give us ours, we’re going to burn yours. So there. And what did America get in return?

As part of the negotiations that led to the elimination of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, the Cuban government agreed to accept a few hundred of the more than 36,000 Cubans in the United States who have outstanding deportation orders. Until recently, it was virtually impossible to deport Cubans with criminal convictions who were ineligible for immigration, because the Cuban government refused to take them back. They will now be accepted.

More deportations, the secret hallmark of the Obama Administration, sanctuary notwithstanding.

We can’t hate Cuba forever. Castro is dead, and normalization of the relationship between the United States and Cuba is a worthy effort. But Cuba is not yet a free and open society, much as it may eventually be, and refugees make their own choice to risk their lives, preferring to take the chance rather than remain on the bucolic island of old Chevys.

The argument that this policy change is for their own good, to save them from a perilous trip, is as bizarre an example of disingenuous nanny-statesmanship as can be imagined. But it’s the best the New York Times could muster. And muster it must, as someone has to champion the favored President Obama to create the appearance of a legacy worthy of adoration.

28 thoughts on “From Dry Foot To Wet Back

  1. stevie g

    Deporting Cubans with criminal convictions seems reasonable enough. If we are going to accept migrants based upon economic circumstances, we should perhaps start with Venezuela.

    If we are going to normalize relations with Cuba, then we should end asylum for Cubans. We can’t have it both ways.

    Then again, there is always the legal process of immigration. Having just gone through arduous and expensive process from Colombia, there certainly is a feeling of unfairness that all Cubans have to do is just get here. Cuba and its culture is admired in Colombia. Venezuela, not so much.

    BTW, “wet back” is a derogatory ethnic slur. Gringo tambien.

    1. SHG Post author

      The only thing exceeding your mad reading skillz is your grasp of nuance. Thank you for explaining that “wet back” is a derogatory ethnic slur. Who would have ever known? You are special.

          1. stevie g

            Well, it’s offensive, especially to Cubans. It’s not clever and it doesn’t support your point and your supposed support of Cubans. Lumping Cubans together with Mexicans shows a lack of cultural knowledge just like any blithering idiot would do. Stick to what you know Scott.

            1. SHG Post author

              Heh. You are ever so close to grasping why the word was used when you write:

              Lumping Cubans together with Mexicans shows a lack of cultural knowledge just like any blithering idiot would do.

              Such a shame that your taking offense blinded you to that final, and most difficult, step.

          2. Richard Kopf

            SHG, since I like Cuban wetbacks more than I like, say, wetbacks from Guatemala, I too was offended. It is not true that a wetback is a wetback is a wetback. For our cigar making friends, the proper description is: “Cubano inmigrante vía Estrecho de la Florida.”

            It is very important that you begin to learn cultural sensitivity. In that regard, I am always here for you.

            All the best.


          3. Nick Lidakis

            I was really hoping for another classic , “How do you get out of bed without hurting yourself?” What a let down.

  2. David Childe

    Immigrants of all stripes have had a positive effect on the economy. Just the kind of people we should covet. The Cubans in particular. The Mariel boat group even more so. Hard workers. Entrepreneurial. Just what this country should want more of. We should have taken a lot more of the Syrians refugees, too. It’s basic economics and good sense and what used to make us great.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are few things more illuminating when it comes to a discussion of immigration than a third-grade grasp of civics.

  3. norahc

    President Obama waits until his last week in office to make a huge policy shift like this? It almost seems like it is a political “screw you” to the President-Elect…setting up a potential political crisis for the incoming administration.

    1. B. McLeod

      Yes, the clear objective is to screw with Trump. If Trump now does anything to help the Cubans, he crosses up his own “tough stance” on illegal immigrants. This is simply another illustration of the cynical, zero-sum, Chicago politics Obama has always practiced. His last days in office are about causing problems and taking revenge.

        1. Jim Tyre

          Just you wait. As its last act before the door hits it in the butt, the outgoing administration will implement an elegant technical measure that will block all Twitter usage on WH grounds.

          You read it here first.

  4. Andrew Garland

    Google: High deportation figures are misleading – LA Times

    High deportation figures are misleading. People entering at the border who are immediately turned around are now counted as deportations. How to lie using statistics.

    LA Times 4/1/14
    === ===
    [edited] The portrait of a steadily increasing number of deportations rests on statistics that conceal almost as much as they disclose. Actually, expulsions of people who are settled and working in the United States have fallen more than 40% since 2009, Obama’s first year in office.

    The number of people deported at or near the border has gone up as a result of changing who gets counted. The vast majority of them would not have been formal deportations under most previous administrations.

    The change helped the administration look tough in its early years
    === ===

    1. SHG Post author

      Here’s one of the core failures that makes people pathologically stupider. You read something in the LA Times and think you know something, adding insult to injury by “google,” because if it says so on the internet, it’s real to a certain group of people who have no actual knowledge of anything.

      The alternative is the information provided by Mario Machado (as linked in the post and based upon the massive expansion of people being held in immigration jail awaiting explusion and number of cases pending in immigration court), who practices immigration law in the trenches and actually does what reporters pretend to know about. Some people want knowledge. Some people want confirmation. Some people prefer not to be stupider. Others, not so much.

      1. Billy Bob

        “Some people prefer not to be stupider.” Are you serious? Some folks have no choice, apparently. (We like that word, “apparently”. It’s a good word.) You can google your ass off; it might help, but won’t hurt. Or did we get it backwards? Strange times have descended upon the land.
        Can U say Twitter? Ha. Color us flummoxed.

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