South Florida immigrants react to end of special treatment for Cubans

After more than two decades of denouncing the unfairness of U.S. immigration policy that allowed Cubans to go free — but not them —if they reached land, some immigrant groups are celebrating President Obama’s decision to end the special privilege.

But the celebratory reactions is also being met with concerns by others who worry about the ramifications of the sudden end of “wet foot, dry foot,” the policy by which Cubans who were intercepted at sea were sent back by the United States but those who reached land were able to stay.

While the end of the policy means Cubans will now be treated the same as other undocumented immigrants, some worry that it also means more detainees at already overwhelmed detention facilities and longer waits for asylum claims. There are also concerns about how the end of the policy, enacted in 1995, could impact the ongoing fight for overall immigration reform.

“This has fallen like a bucket of cold water for us as leaders who have been constantly fighting for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Francisco Portillo, president of the Integrated Honduran Organization Francisco Morazán. “All that is known so far, is that we have not achieved the objective that Obama promised us in his political campaigns, the passing of comprehensive immigration reform.”

Portillo said while his community has lacked support of the Cuban community in its fight on behalf of undocumented Hondurans, for example, “this does not mean that we rejoice in Obama’s decision to suspend wet foot, dry foot.”

María Rodríguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), is equally worried about what the decision will mean for non-Cuban immigrants.

“While the FLIC has been critical of the unequal treatment of Cuban and Haitian immigrants and families, calling this unjust policy ‘white foot / black foot,’ the truth is, eliminating it does not help us,” she said.

Like many, Patricia Andrade was surprised by Obama’s decision, especially since he only has a few days left in office before turning over the presidency to President-elect Donald Trump.

While concerned that the wait for asylum seekers will now become longer because of the “new equity” in immigration policy, she said the decision could be a blessing in disguise for Cubans.

“It’s not the best day for the Cubans, but now they will have to think twice about what they are going to do ...and maybe decide to stay in their country to fight for democracy,” said Andrade, president of the Venezuela Awareness. “I want a free Cuba, and this could change the future of Cuba.”

Added Andrade: “The Cubans and the Venezuelans are now in the same position with Homeland Security.”

That sentiment is also being expressed by Haitian activists, who have spent decades pointing out the discriminatory treatment Haitians seeking to reach the U.S. shores receive in respect to Cubans.

“Today is a big day for us,” said Marleine Bastien, the founder of Haitian Women of Miami. “We organized and fought for over 20 years for that, for wet foot, dry foot to be eliminated; for all those coming here to this safe haven in this great democracy to be able to state their cases in a court of law.”

Today, there are more than 3,000 Haitians at the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico waiting to present themselves to U.S. officials at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Once they cross over, most will likely be detained and eventually put on an airplane and deported to Haiti.

That reality is not lost on Bastien and others. While commemorating the seventh anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake at a vigil in Little Haiti on Thursday — the same day the news broke about the elimination of the preferential treatment — Bastien announced the change. Surprised, the mostly Haitian crowd responded with applause.

“We are happy, and we are elated with this move and we commend President Barack Obama for his leadership,” she said.

Attorney Cheryl Little, who long fought for equity on behalf of Haitians and other immigrant groups as the head of Americans for Immigrant Justice, offered a more subdued reaction.

“Our Haitian clients have never suggested that Cubans should be treated less favorably than they are,” Little said. “They only only asked for fair treatment for themselves.”

Like other immigrant rights activists, Little has long pointed out the inequities in the system.

“It always concerns us when immigration policy becomes more restrictive and it becomes more difficult for those seeking refuge in our country to do so,” she said.