The wet foot, dry foot policy was an interpretation given to the revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1995. It essentially says that anyone who immigrated to the United States from the island nation of Cuba would be given permission to pursue residency in 12 months. Before this revision, the U.S. government allowed anyone who reached American territorial waters to remain in the country instead of being deported back to Cuba.
The changes that occurred during the Clinton administration meant that any Cubans who were caught in the water (having “wet” feet) would be shipped back home or sent to a third country for processing. If an individual made it to shore in the United States (having “dry” feet), then they would receive a chance to remain in the country, qualifying for an expedited status as a legal permanent resident.
By having dry feet, individuals from Cuba would eventually have a path to citizenship if they wanted thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act language that passed in 1966. The Obama Administration stopped the implementation of this policy in January 2017, and it has yet to be reinstated.
List of the Pros of a Wet Foot Dry Foot Policy
1. It changed the travel patterns of Cuban immigrants and refugees.
The goal of the wet foot, dry foot policy from the United States was to discourage people from setting sail in barely seaworthy boats to try to find refuge away from their island nation. The distance from Havana to Key West is only 90 miles, but the waters can sometimes be treacherous. Instituting this policy allowed the U.S. Coast Guard to intercept boats in territorial or international waters to prevent people from potentially dangerous situations.
Now travelers leave Cuba to land on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, which is a journey of about 40 additional miles across the sea. Then the immigrants arrived at the southern border to claim asylum.
2. It stopped the people-smuggling movement that developed in Cuba.
Because U.S. law allowed individuals from Cuba to gain a legal permanent resident status if they made it into the territorial waters, there was a healthy people-smuggling movement that would take people off of the island so that they could start living in the United States. Although there were some coyotes who were compassionate and used their skill to help people have a better life, many more used this opportunity to make money without caring about the outcome of each sailing event.
This change in policy helped to save the lives of many because it stopped the process of dumping people on U.S. islands, in American waters, or even worse situations.
3. It offered a way to encourage immigration without compromising political negotiations.
The American relationship with Cuba has been strained since the 1960s and the missile crisis that happened during the Kennedy administration. Taking the wet foot, dry foot approach was a step closer to normalizing the relationship because it brought Cubans closer to the processes that immigrants from other countries were required to follow. At the same time, it still put pressure on the Castro regime to change its ways by improving its treatment of dissidents because there was always the option to try to become an American citizen one day.
4. It stopped giving Cuban immigrants a preferential status.
The 1966 legislation that became the Cuban Adjustment Act declared that everyone from Cuba was a political refugee. The law dictated that everyone who came from the island nation, including their spouses and children, should be granted legal status if they stayed in the United States for more than a year. That means immigrants had preferential treatment over others coming to the United States. By getting rid of WFDF, it stopped the label of political refugee.
Cubans who believe that they will go through political persecution if they return home can still apply for asylum when they reach the United States, but now there is no reason to treat people differently because of their initial home.
5. It did not change the economic dynamics of life in the United States.
When over 100,000 Cubans came to the United States because of the Mariel Boatlift, there was a 7% increase in the labor pool in Miami. Despite the increases in of population because of the mass migration, there was no significant long-term effect to the labor market. Those who traveled here quickly integrated to life in the United States, with 7% eventually holding a professional or graduate degree. The employment rate of the community is almost equal to that of the general population.
6. It allowed for continued movement between Cuba and the United States.
Although critics of the wet foot, dry foot policy tended to say it was a bizarre foreign policy decision, those who made it to ground could travel back and forth between the island nation and their new home in the United States without jeopardizing their asylum status. As long as they maintained their home for 12 months, a path to citizenship would open up for them. Refugees from Cuba were the only ones who could take advantage of this unique policy as they worked to free themselves from the oppressive government of their homeland.
7. It still allowed Cubans to go somewhere else other than their homeland.
Under the official guidelines released by the Department of Homeland Security after its creation, the WFDF policy was a general understanding that people intercepted at sea would either be returned to Cuba or resettled in a third country. That meant there was still an option for a new start away from the oppressive regime run by the Castro brothers if there was a political fear of reprisal present.
Then Cubans would receive access to resettlement programs that would help them to acclimate to their new community. This process included case management services, employment plans and assistance, and help applying for the appropriate documents they would need, such as an EAD or a Social Security number.
8. It created other changes to the immigration policies that the U.S. had with Cuba.
When the Clinton administration came to an agreement with the WFDF policy with Cuba, there were six other points of emphasis that were included with the process. The U.S. agreed to admit no fewer than 20,000 immigrants from the island nation, cooperate on the voluntary return of those who required repatriation, and reaffirm their mutual support of the U.N.’s resolution on alien smuggling.
List of the Cons of a Wet Foot Dry Foot Policy
1. It gave the Coast Guard an incentive to stop people from making it to land.
There was an incident in 1999 after the wet foot, dry foot policy was in place where the Coast Guard worked to prevent six Cubans from reaching Surfside Beach, FL. They used pepper spray and a high-powered water cannon to deter the individuals from reaching the shore. Just a few weeks later, a Cuban woman ended up drowning because her boat capsized during interdiction.
In a 2006 incident, the Coast Guard found 15 Cubans on the old 7-Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys. Because it was cut-off from land, the agency argued that the individuals still had wet feet and did not qualify for immigration.
2. It stopped putting pressure on the Cuban government to change its ways.
Cuba often criticized American foreign policy after the Castro regime took over the government because policies like wet foot, dry foot encouraged anyone who wanted to leave the island to take a chance at a better life. If they could make landfall in the United States, then there was no risk of being repatriated. It was a policy that didn’t place any pressure on the government to change their ways because they had the authority to stop people who attempted escape and place them in detention.
In one situation, a group of Cubans kidnapped three guards who were guarding a boat. They made it to the United States, where the Coast Guard began asking questions about asylum. When the government of Cuba said that they would extend 10-year prison sentences to the individuals of the group, then the Coast Guard repatriated the individuals.
3. It created political theater.
When the Obama administration decided to end the WFDF policy for Cuban immigrants, Senator Ted Cruz suggested that the move was an act of political retribution against Cuban Americans. Cruz felt that because this community voted Republican, that the elimination of the policy was a message sent to them – even though the election found that Cuban-Americans actually voted for Democrats at record levels in the 2016 election. If anything, the move by Obama hurt the Democratic cause since older immigrants as citizens are less likely to vote for the liberal agenda.
4. It encouraged more people to start immigrating from Cuba.
In the days right before and after WFDF became the policy in treating Cuban immigrants, there were numerous makeshift boats that got stranded in the stretch of water between Key West and Cuba. As the Castro regime shifted gears in 2009, there was another explosion of illegal immigration. Over 4,000 people were caught in the water in 2014 alone, and then that figure rose to 7,400 people in 2016. Another 50,000 Cubans arrived at other border stations around the country as well.
Because Cuba started allowing people to leave without an exit visa, people flooded the seas and the borders because normalized relations would likely end their special status. WFDF encouraged people to leave in that circumstance, which put many lives in danger.
5. It did not require specific medical interventions after arrival.
WFDF did require Cubans to go through a processing service when they reached dry land or a border station, but it was usually less than an hour of work before the individuals were free to go. They were fingerprinted and given a background check to determine if there were any links to terrorism or past criminal behavior. What was not required was a medical examination or specific vaccines that could stop the spread of disease once they entered the United States.
By not requiring the refugees to have specific medical interventions, the U.S. policy of WFDF placed the neighborhood were Cubans were settling at a higher risk of illness.
6. It did not deter illegal immigration.
The reality of the WFDF policy was that most Cubans decided to game the system after the policy was enacted. Instead of taking a risk across the water, they would save up enough cash to take an authorized flight from their homeland to Mexico. Once they disembarked from the plane, they could make their way to a land border with the United States to qualify for their special status.
Although the goal of WFDF was to curtail water-based landings, it had a limited effect on illegal immigration from Cuba. The United States arguably needs laws that deter this practice instead of encouraging it, which means the laws need to be consistent across the board with all countries. The repeal of this policy helped to take the United States in the right direction.
The goal of the wet foot, dry foot policy was to put pressure on a communist regime in Cuba to change their ways. The American government felt like giving immigrants an opportunity to have a path to citizenship if they were brave enough to cross the Caribbean was a way to force the hand of the Castro regime.
Although there was some movement toward relationship normalization, the WFDF impact never really lived up to its full potential. Cuba accepted deportation orders afterward, but it also caused American personnel to interfere with the landing processes of immigrants who had traveled the 90 miles to find a new home.
The pros and cons of wet foot dry foot may not be active these days, but there is always a chance that the Trump administration or a future government could reinstate this policy. That is why we must continue to learn the lessons that history gives us. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat what has already happened.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.