Cubans will have to make the case for asylum, too

In 1999, a Cuban refugee swam hard to make it to shore in a crowded Surfside beach, well aware of the wet foot/dry foot policy.
In 1999, a Cuban refugee swam hard to make it to shore in a crowded Surfside beach, well aware of the wet foot/dry foot policy. MIAMI HERALD

In a surprising move — one that seriously impacts South Florida — President Obama, whose tenure in the Oval Office is up in a week, ended the controversial wet foot/dry foot policy that allows Cuban nationals who make it to land to remain in the United States. The open door closed on Thursday. Just like that.

The new policy essentially means that Cubans who arrive in the United States without visas no longer will automatically be allowed to stay, then win residency after a year and a day, as mandated by the still-standing Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. This turns back the clock on decades of preferential — and some would say unfair — treatment for Cuban refugees. They are now subject to deportation, an immigration situation unheard of for Cubans seeking residency since the early 1960s.

The Editorial Board, which lauded the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in late 2014, has also criticized Cuba’s continued oppression of its citizens — still no elections, dissidents still imprisoned, the ability to speak freely muzzled.

At the same time, the end of wet foot/dry foot is a natural outcome of the new relationship with Cuba. As has been obvious for many years now, many refugees from the island have come seeking economic relief, not freedom from political persecution — to such a degree that they are comfortable shuttling between the two countries when it suits them.

This ends the abuse.

Wet foot/dry foot was implemented following the 1994 rafter crisis that brought 35,000 Cubans to U.S. shores. Under the new policy, Cubans can still seek political asylum — but, just like asylum seekers from other countries, they must prove political persecution if they hope to stay. At this point, it’s only fair.

Wet foot/dry foot grew to be controversial for good reason. In this community, it provided a stark lesson in disparity. Haitians and others fleeing persecution in their homeland were turned back or sent to Krome. And weren’t Chinese refugees seeking the same freedoms?

However well-intended, it drove an arbitrary wedge between Cubans who were lucky enough to make it to dry land and those who sometimes came within a few yards but were turned back by authorities, nonetheless.

And it will stanch the flow of refugees who have made the arduous trip from Cuba through Latin America, so much of it on foot, in anticipation of the policy ending.

Still, we question the president’s timing. Cuban leader Raúl Castro has demanded an end to wet foot/dry foot. Thursday, he got it. Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado called the the policy change “a gift” from Obama to Castro.

The end of wet foot/dry foot will not make life easier for Cubans on the island. But it leaves the United States with a fairer, more consistent immigration policy.