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End Of ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Means Cubans Can Join Ranks Of Undocumented

End Of ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Means Cubans Can Join Ranks Of Undocumented
January 15, 20177:07 AM ET

There’s a popular saying in Spanish — O todos en la cama, o todos en el
suelo. It conveys a selfless commitment to equal treatment, and
translates roughly like this: Either we all get the bed, or we all get
the floor.

Among many immigrants in the U.S., there’s been a feeling that when it
comes to the spoils of U.S. immigration policy, the government has given
Cubans the bed all to themselves, while it has relegated others –
Mexicans, Haitians, Central Americans — to the floor.

This is because of the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which
since 1995 has granted Cubans who touch American soil a privilege not
afforded other immigrants who come without a visa: the right to stay and
get on a fast-track to citizenship.

This special treatment ended this week when, in the final days of his
administration, President Barack Obama announced an abrupt end to the
policy, a capstone to his two-year-old effort to reestablish relations
with Cuba. Effective immediately, Cubans arriving on U.S. soil without a
visa will be treated just like any other immigrant. They will be turned
away.

This does not mean Cubans will stop coming.

“What it means,” said Florida International University political
scientist Eduardo Gamarra, “is that for the first time, we’re going to
have undocumented Cubans. And how the Cuban community responds to that
is going to be very interesting.”

For decades, Cubans have occupied a rarefied station, particularly among
the Latino population of the United States. Because those arriving in
the U.S. after Fidel Castro’s ascension in 1959 were seen as fleeing
political persecution, the U.S. generally allowed them to stay. In 1966,
Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allowed Cubans to get
green cards after being in the U.S. for two years, later reduced to a
single year. Though the Cuban government opposed these policies, they
were the status quo until 1994, when the U.S. agreed to amend the rules.

“Wet foot, dry foot” allowed only those Cubans who made it to U.S. soil
to stay. Those caught at sea were to be turned away. The stated hope was
that the threat of getting repelled would discourage Cubans from risking
their lives on rickety boats. But they kept coming, and once here, a
green card was pretty much assured.

Leaving their country has always carried risk for Cubans, as it has for
other immigrants. But unlike for their counterparts, the specter of
illegality and all its repercussions (see: the 2016 presidential
election) has not applied to Cubans. They have never really had to
worry, for example, about deportation once they’ve made it to the U.S.
This privilege has affected in fundamental ways the identity that
Cuban-Americans have forged both in terms of their place in American
society and in relation to other Latino groups.

“Cubans have never been, and have never seen themselves, as ‘illegals,’
or even, particularly, as a minority group,” said Guillermo Grenier, a
sociologist at FIU who is Cuban-American. “They have never seen
themselves as anything other than added value to this country. It’s part
of the Cuban exceptionalism narrative that is just as strong as the
American exceptionalism narrative.”

The dynamics here are complex. That stems in part from the fact that
most of the Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s regime soon after the 1959
revolution were political exiles, not economic migrants. They were of
the largely white middle class whose property and businesses Castro
seized and nationalized. Beginning in the 60s, these exiles used their
entrepreneurial drive to turn Miami into a vibrant frontier city.

Over the decades, this set Cubans apart from many other Latinos in the
U.S., who aside from tending to be economic migrants, also lacked the
legal status that would have allowed them to achieve their full
potential. Even as the makeup of the Cuban influx began to change in the
80s and 90s – with more Cubans coming for economic reasons – “wet foot,
dry foot” allowed them a unique confidence in their place in the United
States.

“That’s always been a schism impeding solidarity between Cubans and
other Latino groups,” Grenier said. Though it’s rarely led to full-blown
tension, it has been more evident at times, as it was last year when
large groups of Haitians and Central-Americans seeking asylum found
themselves stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border while long lines of Cubans
got through.

“The policy has clearly contributed to that,” Grenier said.

The fact that Cuban-Americans, unlike other Latinos, have traditionally
been a reliable conservative voting block has also contributed to this
schism. And even as the Cuban-American political center has shifted to
the left in recent years, Grenier said, there is a built-in distance
when it comes to issues like immigration between the young Cubans
marching for immigrant rights and the Mexicans, Guatemalans and
Colombians with whom they’re linking arms.

“It’s a feeling of solidarity with other Latinos and their plight,”
Grenier said. “You see young Cubans fighting for the other guy.”

Grenier said he expects “wet foot, dry foot” to gradually change notions
of Cuban-American identity as newer migrants become subject to the
construct of “illegality” that drives so much of the policy and rhetoric
around immigration in the United States.

While before, young Cubans were fighting for the other guy, “now you’re
going to be fighting for yourself,” Grenier said. “You’re going to have
a horse in the race.”

Eduardo Gamarra said Cubans in the U.S. are going to find their
community stratifying in ways familiar to other Latino groups.

“You’re going to have privileged and non-privileged Cubans,” he said.
“You’re going to find the phenomenon of people trying to demonstrate
that they were here before yesterday. You’re going to find mad rushes to
find ways to become documented.”

At the same time, Gamarra says the end of “wet foot, dry foot” will not
necessarily usher in a level playing field. Obama kept in place a policy
that grants roughly 20,000 visas to Cubans annually, a relatively large
number for an island of 11 million people.

Nonetheless, Gamarra said the policy’s end may strengthen solidarity
between Cubans and other Latinos, “because we aren’t all going to be on
the bed together,” he said. “We’re all going to be on the floor.”

Correction
Jan. 15, 2017
A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a pull quote to
political scientist Eduardo Gamarra. The quote belongs to sociologist
Guillermo Grenier.

Source: End Of ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Means Cubans Can Join Ranks Of
Undocumented : Code Switch : NPR –
www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/01/15/509895837/end-of-wet-foot-dry-foot-means-cubans-can-join-ranks-of-the-undocumented

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