Fabiola Santiago

In the 11th hour of his presidency, Obama delivers a blow to Cuban immigrants

President Barack Obama delivers a farewell speech to the nation on Tuesday in Chicago, Illinois.
President Barack Obama delivers a farewell speech to the nation on Tuesday in Chicago, Illinois. Getty Images

The sea that has brought thousands of Cubans to these shores for almost six decades disappears into darkness at my window as I listen in by phone on a hastily called press conference by the White House.

At the 11th hour of his presidency, President Barack Obama has ended the controversial “wet foot, dry foot policy” that allowed Cubans who reach land, whether by sea or at the border, automatic entry into the United States.

The radical change is effective immediately, and I wonder: How many Cubans are out there right now risking their lives in these dark waters, only to arrive tomorrow or the next day – if they make it – to a country that has all of a sudden closed its doors to them?

Even if you knew this troubled policy had to end, for Cubans and Cuban-Americans with a heart the end of immigration privileges Cubans have enjoyed for decades is a bitter turn of events. Will Cubans fleeing the oppressive Castro regime still arrive, but instead of announcing themselves with joy, be driven into the shadows like other immigrants?

If past history is any indication, desperate people may still make the journey. So little has changed in Cuba.

Dennis Pupo Cruz (standing) calls family and friends to let them know he and other Cubans have been turned away from entering the United States.

Under the new rules, Cubans will be treated like any other immigrant – and when they reach land, they’ll only be paroled into the country if they can prove political persecution. This is not a generalized fear of the Castro regime, but something specific and systemic and hard to prove even for an immigration lawyer. That’s why most Cubans interdicted at sea are repatriated to Cuba – and why Cubans jump from their boats and run ashore as if their lives depended on it.

Because it did. But no more.

“That this is happening the week before his presidency ends tells me there is something more to this,” Miami lawyer Rafael Peñalver tells me. “This is something Cuba has requested for a long time. It’s like a show piece for them for Cubans to be treated like any other immigrant. But this also closes an escape valve on the regime that could increase internal dissent. The road to the U.S. is no longer there.”

He added, however, with concern: “It’s very easy to make that statement here in the United States. If I were in Cuba and I was a true refugee, I would love to continue having that policy welcoming me with open arms.”

But the policy – enacted by the Clinton Administration in the aftermath of the rafter crisis of 1994 – had taken a dark turn in recent times.

Cubans desperate to reach land were arming themselves with knives, trying to keep the Coast Guard from interdicting them before they reached the shore. One pregnant woman was suspected of shooting herself to force her admission to a hospital instead of being repatriated. And some recent arrivals have been involved in high-profile cases of Medicare fraud, marijuana trafficking and other crimes.

Worse, so many, many lives have been lost at sea, and, in the last years since the Castro regime allowed Cubans to fly freely, while making a trek across seven Latin American countries to the U.S. border. Who can forget the words of a Miami woman who lost her brother to violent smugglers along the route?

“We bought him a ticket to this death,” she lamented.

Yet so many do make it: 40,000 Cubans were granted parole in fiscal year 2015 and 54,000 in 2016, according to administration officials. 

“Obama, at the end of the day, has been an anti-immigrant president,” says Maria de los Angeles Torres, a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois. “He doesn’t get it… It’s a strange thing to do at the end of your administration. It shows the lack of understanding of nuances of what’s going on Cuba”

There’s sadness to the closing of this chapter in Cuban immigration history. I feel it so close to the sea, to shores that were ground zero for the Mariel boatlift of 1980 when 125,000 people arrived in five months.

“People are now vulnerable to deportation,” Torres said. “The concern for those of us outside Miami not wrapped up in the Cold War rhetoric is what this means in terms of human rights. People don’t leave their countries because they’re comfortable. They’re seeking a better life and to shut down these committed openings to becoming Americans is a loss. He is making us less American.”

And that is truly something to mourn.