This week, President Obama brought “wet foot, dry foot” — the policy whereby Cuban migrants who make it to U.S. soil are granted automatic parole and immediate access to safety-net benefits — to an end. Critics of the Castro regime, including Florida senator Marco Rubio, have taken exception to the decision, on the grounds that it might threaten the well-being of Cubans who legitimately fear political persecution back home. Though my sympathies are normally with Cuba hawks, and though I believe President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba without extracting meaningful concessions was a grave mistake, the Obama administration is in this case doing the right thing.
Doris Meissner, one of the architects of wet-foot, dry-foot, has summarized the implications of the new policy for the left-of-center Migration Policy Institute. Elsewhere, David North of the right-of-center Center for Immigration Studies, meanwhile, has endorsed the new policy, for reasons I suspect are similar to mine.
There are a number of factors that set the stage for President Obama’s decision. For decades, the Castro regime imposed travel restrictions on Cuban citizens. Those restrictions were lifted in 2013, and large numbers of Cubans have since traveled to Latin American countries with lax visa requirements with the intention of making their way to the U.S. via Mexico. Since 2009, the U.S. government has gradually eliminated its limits on the remittances Cubans living and working in the U.S. can send their families back home. Once the U.S. government made its intention to normalize relations with Cuba clear, would-be Cuban migrants had good reason to believe that they would no longer enjoy preferential treatment on arriving in the U.S. The result is that the flow of Cuban migrants has greatly increased in recent years and a growing share of Cuban migrants are best understood not as victims of political persecution but rather as economic migrants seeking a better life.
To get a sense of how the Cuban diaspora in the U.S. has evolved in recent years, I recommend reading Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s recent New York Times dispatch on the growing Cuban community in Louisville, Ky. (which happens to be one of my favorite cities). Stolberg recounts harrowing stories from recent Cuban migrants about the cruelty of Cuba’s government, yet her reporting makes it clear that many of the “Kentubanos” are not particularly exercised about politics. Many are less worried about the fight for liberty in Cuba than they are about being granted visas to return home.
One can hardly fault Cubans for leaving behind their country’s poverty, and for wanting to send hard-earned dollars to their loved ones still on the island. It’s easy to see why hundreds of thousands of desperately poor people living in poor countries endeavor to migrate to rich countries every year, lawfully or otherwise. But Cuba is not unique in being a desperately poor country, nor is it unique in being a desperately poor country with a repressive government. It’s not clear why the U.S. should treat Cuban migrants differently from, say, Venezuelan migrants, or Iranian or Chinese migrants.
Until recently, we treated Cuba as a pariah, and for good reason. We maintained an embargo, to do what we could to avoid strengthening the Castro regime’s grip. Now we’ve opened up trade with Cuba, and we no longer have any qualms about Cuban migrants sending money back home — bettering the lives of their families, certainly, but also helping to keep the Castro regime afloat by providing it with much-needed hard currency. Frankly, we’ve found ourselves in an incoherent place. President Obama’s decision has helped clarify matters.