The day when ‘wet foot, dry foot’ became policy and changed immigration

Cinematographer Brian Hubbard, measures the light as actor Jorge Luis Alvarez, prepares for a scene on Biscayne Bay during the filming of the short movie “Wet Foot/Dry Foot, the story of two rafters.
Cinematographer Brian Hubbard, measures the light as actor Jorge Luis Alvarez, prepares for a scene on Biscayne Bay during the filming of the short movie “Wet Foot/Dry Foot, the story of two rafters. El Nuevo Herald/2005

On May 2, 1995, the U.S. and Cuba announced a change in immigration policy, the birth of what would become known as the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy. Here is the Miami Herald story from that day, published on May 3. On Thursday, an Obama administration official said the wet foot, dry foot policy was ending.

In a sweeping reversal of policy, the United States and Cuba announced Tuesday that 21,000 Guantanamo refugees will be admitted to the United States but that all future rafters rescued at sea will be returned to Cuba.

The announcement was both surprising and historic.

Surprising because the Clinton administration, in an effort to deter rafters, had pledged not to admit the Guantanamo Cubans.

Historic because never before have U.S. ships returned Cuban refugees to their communist homeland.

The decision, which follows an earlier agreement to admit 20,000 Cuban immigrants this year, means that at least 40,000 Cuban immigrants will be granted entry to the United States over the next nine to twelve months.

And thousands more may follow if they qualify for visas available in Havana. The United States has said it is willing to grant at least 15,000 visas a year to Cubans for the next four years, perhaps longer.

The noon announcement -- hammered out in secret talks between the two governments -- ignited an immediate political firestorm in South Florida, where many of the migrants are likely to settle.

Critics said they felt deceived by the White House, which had promised last summer to keep thousands of rafters detained at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. Cuban Americans welcomed the releases but were stunned that the United States would even think of returning rafters to Cuba to live under Cuban President Fidel Castro's rule and face possible reprisals.

For decades, the United States has welcomed all Cuban migrants as virtual heroes and victims of the struggle against Communist expansionism in the Americas.

The surprise accord was the product of unprecedented cooperation between the two governments. The two sides met secretly over the past two weeks to craft an agreement allowing the U.S. Coast Guard to immediately begin repatriating rafters to Cuba. The rafters will be met at Cuban ports by U.S. consular officials. Cuba has promised that none will face reprisals.

"It implies a level of cooperation that we've certainly not had before. Never in this systematic way, " said Richard Nuccio, a senior policy adviser at the State Department. "This is an acknowledgement that to solve some problems we have to deal with the Cuban government."

Havana hailed the agreement as introducing a strong dose of normality in U.S.-Cuban relations, treating Cubans as immigrants rather than victims of political oppression for the first time in more than 35 years.

And some Florida politicians viewed it as the only way to avoid future refugee crises.

"The new Clinton policy on Cuba is going to ensure Florida does not face another Mariel, " said Gov. Lawton Chiles, referring to the exodus of 125,000 people from the Cuban port of Mariel in 1980.

But Cuban American lawmakers, Cuban exiles and their Republican allies voiced outrage at the accord, which they said would legitimize Castro in the eyes of the world.

"It's another prime example of the softening and the warming up of relations between the U.S. and Castro, " said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, who branded the change "very lamentable."

Senator Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attacked the agreement as "a sign that the United States now will work in partnership with Castro's brutal security apparatus by intercepting and capturing escaping Cuban refugees, and turning them over directly to Castro's thugs."

The powerful Cuban American National Foundation was so angry that its leaders withdrew a promise to spend millions helping to resettle the Guantanamo Cubans.

"They made this policy alone, " said foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa, complaining that he had not been consulted by the Clinton administration. "Let them now solve the problems of Guantanamo alone."

Attorney General Janet Reno portrayed the move as a strategy to pre-empt the possibility of riots at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- where the refugees have been housed in makeshift camps for months -- and to avert another exodus from the island nation.

"Cubans must know that the only way to come to the United States is by applying in Cuba, " Reno said.

Rafters who manage to reach U.S. soil will be candidates for deportation, another dramatic change. Reno said they will be "placed in exclusion proceedings, and treated as are all illegal migrants form other countries, including giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum."

Previously, most were paroled and -- under the Cuban Adjustment Act — automatically received legal U.S. residency a year and a day after arriving in the country.

But administration officials were not ready to say any Cubans would actually be deported.

"That's a ways away, " said Alex Aleinikoff, general counsel for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "We don't have any people in that category. I don't want to deal with a hypothetical."

The Cubans in Guantanamo will fly to the United States at the rate of 500 a week. Families with children will come first. Single men and women will follow. Some 18,000 of the 21,000 refugees are men, most between the ages of 18 and 30.

About 500 Guantanamo Cubans will be sent home because they have criminal records or physical or mental defects that make them ineligible.

It is unclear where the refugees admitted to the United States will end up. Although the administration has vowed to find sponsors and encourage them to settle in other states, most rafters are expected to resettle in South Florida.

The new policy represents a stark reversal for the administration, which had long insisted that most of the Cubans at Guantanamo would not be processed for transfer to the United States. Nearly 30,000 Cubans were brought in Guantanamo last summer after Castro's government, troubled by unprecedented civil disturbances, invited them to leave the island.

At the time, Reno urged Cubans to stay put.

"Do not risk your lives, " she said then. "It is too dangerous. ... You are going to Guantanamo or to other safe havens and you will not be processed for admission to the United States."

It cost the U.S. government about $1 million a day to run the Guantanamo camps. It is unclear whether the federal government will offset resettlement costs once the Cuban migrants arrive in the United States.

Asked Tuesday whether federal funds will be made available, the State Department's Nuccio said:

"We are sympathetic to the burdens that the State of Florida is carrying with regard to migration from Cuba, and we will be considering steps we can take to come to Florida's assistance."

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