The United States gives migrants from Cuba special treatment that no other group of refugees or immigrants receives.
It begins with the so-called “wet-foot, dry-foot policy” that puts Cubans who reach U.S. soil on a fast track to permanent residency. The government initiated the policy in 1995 as an amendment to the1966 Cuban Adjustment Act that Congress passed when Cold War tensions ran high between the U.S. and the island nation.
Under the amendment, when a Cuban migrant is apprehended in the water between the two countries, he is considered to have “wet feet” and is sent back home. A Cuban who makes it to the U.S. shore, however, can “dry feet” and can qualify for legal permanent resident status and U.S. citizenship.
The law does make exceptions for Cubans caught at sea who can prove they are vulnerable to persecution if sent back. The evidence has to be clear and convincing for the government to grant asylum, however.
The idea behind the “wet-foot, dry-foot policy” was to prevent a mass exodus of refugees such as the Mariel boat lift in 1980 when some 125,000 Cuban refugees sailed to South Florida. Over the decades, untold numbers of Cuban migrants have lost their lives at sea making the perilous 90-mile crossing, often in homemade rafts or boats.
In 1994, the Cuban economy was in dire straits after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba President Fidel Castro threatened to encourage another exodus of refugees, a second Mariel in protest of the U.S. economic embargo against the island.
The U.S. government’s response was to use interdiction at sea and the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy to discourage Cubans from leaving. The U.S. Coast Guard and Border Patrol agents intercepted roughly 35,000 Cubans in the year leading up to the policy’s implementation.
The favored treatment Cubans have enjoyed has brought criticism of the U.S. policy. For example, refugees from Haiti and the Dominican Republic have come to the U.S. on the same boat with Cubans but have been returned to their homelands.
The difference originates in Cold War politics from the 1960s. After the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs, the U.S. government started viewing migrants from Cuba through a political prism. On the other hand, officials view migrants from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and other nations in the region as economic refugees who almost always won’t qualify for political asylum.
The U.S. government also admits about 20,000 Cubans each year through a visa lottery program.
The “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy has created some bizarre theater along Florida’s coasts over the years. At times, the Coast Guard has used water cannons and aggressive interception techniques to force boats of migrants away from land and prevent them from touching U.S. soil.
A television news crew shot video of a Cuban migrant running through the surf like a football halfback, trying to fake out a member of law enforcement to make it to dry land and sanctuary in the United States.The Coast Guard found 15 Cubans clinging to a piling on the old Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys shortly after New Year’s in 2006. Since the bridge was no longer used and cut off from land, the Cubans found themselves in a legal limbo over whether they were dry foot or wet foot. The government ultimately ruled the latter and sent them back to Cuba. A court decision later criticized the move.