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.
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.