President Obama just ended a decades-old policy that allowed escapees from Communist Cuba to enter the United States without a visa. Known as “wet feet, dry feet,” it allowed Cubans who showed up at America’s borders to enter lawfully and earn an expedited green card. Cuba’s brutal Communist dictatorship, proximity to the United States and history were the reasons for this relative openness. Now he sends a clear message to Cubans seeking freedom: stay away.
And everybody thought Donald Trump was going to be the anti-immigrant president.
Cubans can still apply for asylum but that backlogged system is a bureaucratic mess. Asylum seekers who filed in August 2011 in Southern California didn’t get a scheduled interview until November 2016. D.C. immigration attorney Ava Benach told me that this will annually add tens of thousands of asylum-deserving Cubans to that crowded system. She hastened to add that ending “wet feet, dry feet” is a big step toward “achieving the Cuban government’s goal of stopping Cuban emigration.”
The one bright spot is that Obama’s action did not repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act, which still allows Cubans to get a green card after being present in the United States for a year. Thus, many who enter seeking asylum will still be able to get a green card until the law is changed by Congress.
But the message sent by this policy shift is clear.
Virtually all of the people with Cuban ancestry who are free and prosperous today either left Cuba or are descended from those who did. Freedom House’s 2016 report ranks Cuba as the only “not free” country in the Western hemisphere with the lowest possible scores for political rights. In 2016, almost 10,000 Cubans were arbitrarily arrested while there is no free speech or independent media. About 176,000 Cubans recognized those problems and came to the United States during Obama’s Presidency – 60,000 in 2016. Almost 10 percent of all Cuba-born people in the world live in the United States.
According to the 2015 American Community Survey, there are 2.1 million people with Cuban ancestry in the United States who enjoy civil, economic and political rights that are denied in Cuba. The economic results of that freedom have been spectacular for Cubans and for Americans. According to surveys, average annual income in Cuba is $300. American workers of Cuban descent earned about 171 times as much in 2015, with average earnings of $51,329. The 737,000 full time Cuban-American workers earned more than 11 times as much as the 11.2 million Cubans still on the island. Cuban-American workers even earn more than native-born Americans.
Cuban-Americans have a proud tradition of entrepreneurship that is partly responsible for reversing Miami’s 1970s urban decline. In the 1980s, about half of the 40 largest Hispanic-owned industrial and commercial firms in the country were in Miami even though only 5 percent of America’s Spanish-origin population resided there. To this day, Cuban-Americans are still 5 percent more entrepreneurial than native-born Americans.
Even the supposed worst outcome of Cuban immigration wasn’t so bad. Recent research by Harvard economist George Borjas, himself a Cuban immigrant, showed that the 1980 Mariel Boatlift initially lowered the wages of native dropouts in Miami. Follow-up research showed that wages for Americans with only a high school degree rose and likely compensated for the decline in dropout wages. Borjas’ even shows that the wages of Miami dropouts recovered by the late 1980s.
The “wet feet, dry feet” policy had problems. Cubans had immediate access to welfare benefits that other immigrants didn’t. Miami Representative Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) introduced a bill last year to end those special benefits that the CBO found would save taxpayers about $250 million a year. Rep. Curbelo’s bill was a fine way of reducing the bad effects of Cuban immigration.
Diverting Cubans into the backlogged asylum system and letting the Cuban Adjustment Act grant them green cards in due course is not the end of the world for Cubans. But ending “wet foot, dry foot” makes the process less predictable, more intimidating and can result in some Cuban asylum-seekers waiting in detention facilities or treated as criminals for fleeing Communism. Now they must make an asylum claim instead of merely being Cuban – a status we all know means they have a well-founded fear of persecution. Worse, some may be deterred from seeking their freedom by the imposing bureaucratic barriers of the asylum system.
America’s open door to Cuba was an exception based on the Cuban government’s breathtaking inhumanity and brutality. In an unfair world populated by evil governments such as Cuba’s, “wet feet, dry feet” was an unfair policy that righted some wrong and diminished suffering while benefiting the United States. It’s a shame that one of President Obama’s last moves in the Oval Office dims our beacon of liberty and makes it more difficult for Cubans to seek their freedom.