Cuban refugees react to the end of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy

A boat used by Cuban refugees washed up on the beach at Anastasia State Park.

By Katherine Lewin |

Two years ago, Jose boarded a plane departing from Havana, Cuba. To the Cuban government, Jose was simply going on vacation to Ecuador. But for Jose, the plane’s wheels leaving the tarmac brought more relief than a break from work ever could. It signaled Jose’s successful escape from Cuba and the beginning of a two-year journey to reach the United States.

More than one million Cubans have immigrated to America since 1959 for a variety of reasons. For Jose and many others, it was strictly economic. The poor economic situation in communist Cuba has motivated people for decades to set aside their fears and risk injury and death in their desperation to reach the United States.

“Scared? I was scared from the moment I left Cuba because I couldn’t believe after so many years of trying to leave I was finally doing it,” said Jose, who asked that his last name not be used for concerns about his safety.

That constant fear did not hold Cubans back from making the dangerous journey, mostly because of the recently ended “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which once gave them the opportunity to become legal residents once stepping foot on American soil. But that residency is no longer a guarantee for Cubans. In Jan. 2017, the Obama administration ended the so-called “wet foot, dry foot policy” that applied solely to Cuba. For the previous two decades, this policy allowed Cubans fleeing their country without visas to become permanent residents of the United States after one year. Under this order, Cubans could not be deported back to Cuba once they reached America. The policy was originally established under Former President Clinton in the 1990s.

Jose’s journey took him from Cuba to Ecuador to Colombia, and then from Colombia to Panama. Once in Panama, he was sent to Mexico and bussed across the border. But this was not a simple trip from country to country. He was jailed while in Ecuador when he tried to cross the border into Colombia. He endured hours-long trips in canoes stuffed over capacity with 60 people and steep, dangerous hikes through the jungle. He also faced extortion and abuse from “coyotes” – people who charge immigrants money to help them cross borders and travel through wild territory.

A boat used by Cuban refugees washed up on the beach at Anastasia State Park.

A boat used by Cuban refugees washed up on the beach at Anastasia State Park.

“During the trip, I met people that chose to go with the coyotes and they didn’t have enough money to pay them at the end,” he said. “So the coyotes killed them. In Sapzuro, Panama, there was a really steep mountain in the jungle where some people were not able to make it – they died of heart attacks while climbing or they fell.”

Not surprisingly, he remembers to the minute the moment he stepped on American soil and knew he had the opportunity to become an American citizen: May 14, 2016 at 7 a.m. He currently resides in Palm Coast, Florida.

The ending of the wet foot, dry foot means that Cubans will now be treated like any other non-American person immigrating to the United States without a visa. If discovered without legal papers, they will be deported back. When the rumors that this change would occur reached Cuba, there was a surge in Cubans coming through ports of entry. According to the Pew Research Center, from 2015 to 2016, Cubans entering the United States jumped 31 percent.

The ending of the wet foot, dry foot policy has brought mixed emotions from Cuban refugees.

“Just imagine: the hope of every Cuban is to get to the United States. People sold their houses and cars and saved money for years and then couldn’t get in anymore. All of their dreams were destroyed,” Jose said.

Three other refugees, a father, mother, and son that traveled together and reached Jacksonville only three months ago said they shared similar emotions of disappointment when hearing about the end of the wet foot, dry foot policy. They wished to remain completely anonymous for this article.

“They should have given Cubans more time or let us know the policy was going to be modified on Jan. 12, because there were people who were on their way or at the border, and suddenly, they ended the policy,” the mother said.

Former President Obama ended the policy to further the process of normalizing relations with Cuba. While some see the end of it as a cause for frustration and grief, others see it as a positive thing for Cubans wanting to come to the United States.

Julia Castro is one of the Cuban refugees who sees the ending of the wet foot, dry foot policy in a positive light. Castro escaped to America in 1965 as a young girl. Her family was fleeing Fidel Castro’s budding oppressive regime. She is now the director of the immigration and legalization program for the Diocese of St. Augustine and has been for more than 16 years.

“It was a good policy at a time when there was a lot of conflict in Cuba and there were a lot of people trying to leave because of political issues,” Castro said. “I believe that things are settling down now and that it was good to stop [the wet, dry foot policy] because a lot of people were getting killed, were drowning, were doing all kinds of crazy things to come to the United States. Now things will even up and it should be better for them. They can come through proper channels.”

Now that President Trump is in office and has shown a penchant for making massive changes to immigration policy, it remains to be seen what will happen to Cuban policy. Trump’s executive power looms over the Cuban people, though mostly for those who are new in the United States and arrived after the ending of the wet foot, dry foot policy.

“If I have to go back, some people in Cuba would take action against me. My father is in the military, so if I go back I would face consequences because I left without permission,” one member of the family of three refugees said. “If I have to go back, I can’t work. No one will hire me. I will not live a normal life.”

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