For all the bluster Miami’s Cuban-American Republicans in Congress delivered after President Barack Obama’s stunning decision Thursday to dispose of a decades-old U.S. policy favoring Cuban immigrants, the likelihood of President-elect Donald Trump reversing the decision seems almost nonexistent.
And Cuban-American lawmakers seem to know it: By Friday, some of them were reluctantly conceding that they don’t even intend to ask Trump to reinstate “wet foot/dry foot,” the policy that allowed any Cuban who arrived on U.S. soil to legally remain in the country.
“It was going to happen, sooner or later: some reform, some change,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen acknowledged to the Miami Herald.
She criticized Obama for making a sudden, “arbitrary” move with no lawmaker input. But she also predicted the policy would not have lasted another year.
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“Congress would have done away with it — we would have reformed it. Something needed to be done,” she said. “Shame on us for not fixing it. But to do this within one week of his presidency ending?”
Trump, who last year said Cubans’ special treatment wasn’t “fair,” remained uncharacteristically silent Friday about Obama’s move, saying nothing on his preferred platform — Twitter — or through his transition team, which ignored repeated emailed requests for comment.
Why Obama left such a momentous change until eight days before Trump’s inauguration was unclear. The White House said the reason was simple: It had taken this long to negotiate an agreement with the Cuban government in which they would begin to accept deportees from the U.S.
“Frankly, we did not want to speculate publicly about the likelihood of this change for fear of inviting even greater migration flows,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters Thursday.
But the last-minute policy reversal, like the business deals with major U.S. corporations that the White House ushered through last month, seemed propelled by Trump’s looming White House arrival, and the possibility that he might try to undo Obama’s biggest legacy in the Western Hemisphere.
Democrats described Trump as boxed in by Obama’s decision. Opposing it would amount to legalizing immigration for Cubans who suddenly find themselves being labeled — for the first time in half a century — illegal immigrants.
“Is he going to poke holes in that big wall he was talking about?” said José Dante Parra, a Democratic strategist and head of Prospero Latino.
Scores of Cubans arrived on U.S. shores and at border checkpoints since December 2014, when Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced renewed diplomatic relations between the countries. After weeks of refusing to provide totals, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Friday the number of Cubans who reached the U.S. without visas in fiscal year 2016 was 56,406 — up from about 40,000 the previous year.
Throughout the two-year migrant surge, the U.S. had insisted it had no plans to modify its Cuban immigration policy — even as Cubans trekked from as far south as Ecuador to reach the U.S.-Mexico border, where they would be guaranteed “dry-foot” status allowing them to stay.
“I would have liked to have seen it earlier, obviously. This has been an issue for a while at the border,” said U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has long backed normalized U.S.-Cuba relations and praised Obama’s move. “This doesn’t solve the issue, by any means, but it should help a lot.”
Any Obama action before the U.S. election last November would have riled Cuban exiles and put Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, in even bigger play for Republicans, Parra said. Trump won the state anyway.
“I do think they waited until the last minute because there would be political costs,” Parra said. “But it does put Trump in a bind.”
In Miami-Dade County, 64 percent of Cuban Americans supported Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba — but 62 percent also backed wet foot/dry foot, especially if they personally benefited from its implementation under President Bill Clinton in 1995, according to a poll conducted last year by Florida International University.
However, Frank Mora, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at FIU and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Latin America, said doing away with the policy is unlikely to hurt Democrats in the long term.
“Time passes, priorities change, and I think people are going to focus on what Trump does,” he said. “The Cuban-American vote isn’t motivated by a single issue, Cuba — Cubans also have other interests.”
The most indignant reaction to Obama’s actions from Congress came from U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, whose forceful statement Thursday was titled, “Have you no shame, President Obama?” But even he said he wasn’t sure he’d ask Trump to reinstate wet foot/dry foot.
U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the youngest Miami Republican lawmaker, admitted he was not unhappy to see the policy go away — though he considered it “regrettable” that it appeared the U.S. had given Cuba exactly what it wanted.
“It’s just a shame that in all these years the Obama administration has been so giddy about collaborating with the Castro dictatorship and has refused at any point to engage with Cuban-American Republicans or Democrats in Congress,” he said.
Curbelo and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in particular seemed to struggle with how to react to Obama’s decision, given that both lawmakers introduced legislation in the previous Congress to curtail abuses of federal benefits by Cuban refugees who quickly return to the island after receiving legal U.S. status.
Those benefits are governed by Congress, as is the Cuban Adjustment Act that allows Cubans to apply for U.S. residency after spending 366 days in the country. But Obama’s policy reversal effectively gutted those laws by making it much more difficult for Cubans to stay in the U.S. and therefore qualify for either benefits or residency.
“The Cuban Adjustment Act has provided countless Cubans the opportunity to escape the Castro tyranny,” Rubio said in a statement late Thursday. “However, in recent years it has also led to growing abuses. While some changes were needed, we must work to ensure that Cubans who arrive here to escape political persecution are not summarily returned to the regime, and they are given a fair opportunity to apply for and receive political asylum.”
Flake said he’s quietly been working on legislation to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act altogether.
Much of the lawmakers’ outrage was focused on Obama’s repeal of a much narrower program that allowed Cuban physicians and other medical professionals to seek U.S. refuge. The Cuban Medical Parole Program particularly irked the Cuban government, which invested heavily in educating doctors and sending them to work abroad — only to see them defect, said Emilio González, the Miami-Dade aviation director who headed U.S. immigration services under President George W. Bush.
“I know for a fact that the Cuban government has been hounding this administration to do away with that program — they hate that program,” González said. “They could care less that their people were coming here in unsafe boats and washing up on the beach.”
If Trump wants to appease Cuban-American Republicans, he could seek to reinstate just that medical program, as Miami-Dade’s Cuban-born mayor, Carlos Gimenez, urged him Friday to do.
That would make the Cuban government unhappy — though it’s unclear what it could do about it.
Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks and Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report. Clark reported from Washington.