MIAMI, FLORIDA - In a hotel room in suburban Miami, Luis Alberto Rodriguez wept when he heard that a government policy granting residency to Cubans who arrive on U.S. soil was ending. That means it could take two years or more before his wife and two children still in Cuba can legally join him here.
Rodriguez arrived in Laredo, Texas, on New Year's Eve, a journey that took him through 10 countries. He had hoped his family would be able to follow shortly afterward, maybe flying to Mexico before walking across the border under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that sent back Cubans intercepted at sea but gave those who reached dry land an automatic path to legal residency.
“It was exhilarating finally making it onto U.S. soil, and then a whirlwind of emotions days later,” when news came that the policy would end, Rodriguez said. “It was such a shock. ... I don't know when I will see them.”
On Thursday, a little more than two years after Cuba and the U.S. began re-establishing diplomatic relations, President Barack Obama decided to end the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, moving yet another step closer to normalizing ties that had been frozen for nearly a half-century. The change forces Cubans to follow the same rules as immigrants from other countries, formally applying for legal immigration status and waiting their turn behind a long list of people who applied before them.
Cuban leaders were not the only ones irritated by the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. It also rankled an increasing number of U.S. elected officials, who accused some Cuban immigrants of abusing their privileges by claiming benefits under federal aid programs even if they returned to Cuba to live. Millions of dollars were defrauded from Medicare that way, they said.
Cubans' special status also angered immigrants from other countries, including those who felt they faced the same kinds of political challenges at home that Cubans had faced under the late Fidel Castro and his brother Raul Castro. Moreover, they said, many Cubans, particularly in recent years, went to the U.S. primarily for economic opportunities, not because of persecution.
“For the longest time, Cubans have had all the privileges here,” said Honduran immigrant Mario Hernandez as he walked outside a busy bookstore in Miami with his wife, daughter and grandchildren. Some Cubans have become millionaires, Hernandez said.
“No one enjoys as many advantages. But hopefully there will be no more of that.”
Haitian community leaders unsuccessfully lobbied the U.S. government for years to extend a similar “wet foot, dry foot” policy to Haitian migrants fleeing poverty and political persecution. While both groups made perilous journeys to Florida in rafts and rickety boats, risking possible death or capture by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Cubans who made it to land were assured of a warm welcome. Haitians, on the other hand, had to go straight into hiding — if they weren't caught and detained first.
“Now the boat we're in is getting tighter, because now our Cuban brothers and sisters are getting into the same boat,” said Haitian-American community organizer Sandy Dorsainvil.
Cuban immigrant Rodriguez said he's resigned to wait for his family to navigate the backlog of U.S. immigration applications rather than have them risk deportation or even death if they try to follow him into the country illegally.
“I don't want them to risk their lives in any way,” he said.
Immigration advocates, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Service Employees International Union officials said the Obama administration's decision to end “wet foot, dry foot” was disappointing and would only serve to make all immigrants more vulnerable.
“Now they're going to add to the rolls of the undocumented, and that's not good for them and not good for our community,” said Randy McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Charities Legal Services.
In the Florida Keys, law enforcement officials said they expect to encounter fewer Cuban migrants now that there's no immediate benefit to reaching land. And Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said Cubans who do attempt landing in the island chain may start treating his deputies differently.
“Once they made it to land, it was open arms and smiles and taking pictures,” Ramsay said. “They were different from migrants from other foreign countries who, when they hit the shore, the first thing they want to do is vanish into society. They'd see a patrol vehicle and they'd try to run, flee and hide.”
A surge in Cuban migrants — fearing the end of the U.S. policy — began in December 2014, when Washington and Havana began re-establishing diplomatic relations. The exodus created problems in Central America, and the Coast Guard increased its patrols in the Florida Straits, Atlantic and Caribbean because of the spiking number of Cubans taking to the sea.
Nearly 200 Cubans have come ashore just in the Keys since Fidel Castro's death on Nov. 25. As of Monday, 1,893 have attempted to reach U.S. soil by sea since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, according to Coast Guard figures. More than 7,400 Cubans were intercepted at sea in the one-year period that ended Sept. 30 — a 60 percent increase from the 4,473 tallied the previous year. The number who made it ashore without alerting authorities or who died at sea is unknown.
Rodriguez is worried about Cubans who started out when the “wet foot, dry foot” policy was still in effect and are now stranded at sea, in Central America or still waiting to leave Cuba after selling their belongings to pay for their journeys.
“All our brothers who are still traveling through land and waters, hoping to make their lives better, I feel saddened that they will not make it,” he said.