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Seven things you need to know about “Wet Foot, Dry Foot”

Eliminating it was the responsible thing to do, but it’s no cause for celebration
Giancarlo Sopo is a Cuban American communication strategist and founder of CubaOne Foundation in Miami. He was a teaching fellow on Leadership and Presidential Politics at the Harvard University Extension School.
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In an August 24, 1994 photo, Cuban refugees stranded on a makeshift raft float in the open sea about halfway between Key West, Florida, and Cuba. Crédito: AP Photo/Hans Deryk

There has been some confusion since President Obama eliminated the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy for Cuban immigrants. Here’s what you need to know:

1. “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” and the Cuban Adjustment Act are not the same thing.
The “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” (WFDF) policy was created by the Clinton administration via executive action. It stated that Cuban immigrants who reached U.S. soil could stay in the country while those intercepted at sea were returned to Cuba. This is the policy that was just eliminated.

The Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) is a 1966 law passed by Congress that allows Cuban immigrants who have entered the country legally to adjust their legal status after a year and a day. In other words, if a Cuban immigrant arrived in the U.S. on a tourist visa on January 1, 2017, on January 2, 2018, s/he can request to have their legal status adjusted. This law still exists.

2. WFDF helped people, but it also rewarded dangerous behavior.
Any candid assessment of WFDF must weigh the benefits that the policy offered Cuban immigrants against its unintended consequences—from human trafficking to fraud. Faced with the difficulties of life on the island, WFDF made jumping on a raft a viable alternative to misery and often resulted in tragedy. To be clear, at least 730,000 Cubans had already entered the United States before WFDF and more will continue to do so, but U.S. policy is no longer incentivizing people (who already need little convincing) to risk their lives.

3. Cuban immigrants still enjoy some of the world’s most generous immigration benefits.
Even with the repeal of WFDF, the U.S. continues to offer the Cuban people unparalleled privileges. No other immigrants—North Koreans, Ethiopians or Haitians—enjoy the benefits the American people have offered Cuban immigrants. In addition to the CAA, the Cuban Family Reunification Program is still in effect, allowing certain beneficiaries to travel to the U.S. before their visas become available. The U.S. also maintains its visa allotment for Cuba and Cuban nationals have the same opportunities as all other immigrants to apply for asylum and deportation relief.

4. This was not a one-sided deal.
Critics of the President’s Cuba policy have described it as a series of “unilateral concessions.” Even though 71% of Americans disagree with this characterization, the critics repeated it on Thursday when the new immigration policy was announced. The fact is that Cuba did make several concessions in these negotiations, including that it will now start accepting Cubans with deportation orders from the U.S., largely for criminal convictions.

5. Cuban-American GOP leaders have wanted to “repeal and replace” WFDF for years.
For years, Miami’s Cuban-American Republican leaders have been among the most vocal critics of WFDF. Just last year, Marco Rubio asked for “an end to special refugee status for Cuban immigrants.” In 2006, representatives Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart called on the Bush administration to “revoke the policy” and replace it with one that was more generous to Cuban immigrants. Interestingly, some of WFDF’s most outspoken detractors blasted President Obama for actually doing part of what they wanted.

6. Cuban-Americans should press the Trump administration on immigration reform.
To their credit, Cuban-American leaders from both parties have long championed immigrant rights. They should continue supporting immigrants by pressing the Trump administration to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that, in addition to helping millions across the country, will help Cubans in their community who now find themselves in a legal limbo. They can also ask the Trump administration for the “replacement” half to the WFDF “repeal and replace” approach that they have supported for years. Most importantly, Cuban-American voters, who by and large already favor pro-immigrant policies, should now make immigration reform a greater priority when voting.

7. Do not believe Ted Cruz’s conspiracy theory about President Obama’s WFDF motive.
Sen. Ted Cruz said that President Obama’s decision to end WFDF was political retribution against the Cuban-American community for voting Republican. This is not true. It has been well documented that Cuban-Americans are increasingly voting Democratic and likely supported Hillary Clinton at a record high level. Besides, those immediately affected by the elimination of WFDF cannot vote because they are not citizens. If anything, Obama’s move may have hurt Democrats since recently arrived Cuban immigrants are twice as likely to vote Democratic as older exiles when they are afforded voting rights.

On a personal note, my feelings are mixed about this move. Eliminating the policy was the responsible thing to do, but it’s no cause for celebration either. On one hand, WFDF gave opportunities to thousands who needed them, but the policy’s negative consequences were clear and likely outweighed its benefits in recent years. Mostly, I feel sympathy for the Cubans, and all immigrants, who are on their way the United States and will likely be turned away.

A silver lining of eliminating “wet foot, dry foot” is that it may encourage Cuba’s youth to focus on building the world they want to see at home, rather than spending energy getting to the U.S. Hopefully, Cuba will one day be a country that nobody wishes to leave.