The Corner

Immigration

Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot Is Back — Sort Of

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 1, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In response to the unrest in both Cuba and Haiti, which could lead to new waves of boat people, DHS Secretary Mayorkas announced on Tuesday that “if you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States … Any migrant intercepted at sea, regardless of their nationality, will not be permitted to enter the United States.”

There are two things to say about this new apparent hawkishness. First, it’s clearly driven by fear of political disaster for the president’s party. The Mariel Boatlift of Cubans in 1980 was one of the cascading calamities that doomed Jimmy Carter’s reelection (as well as Governor Bill Clinton’s, when thousands of Mariel detainees, housed at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas rioted). When Clinton faced a similar crisis as president, all the Haitian and Cuban rafters were sent to Guantanamo, as I suspect would be the case this time if there’s another mass exodus from either or both countries. As it is, Biden’s main weakness with public opinion is on immigration, because of the “apocalyptic” situation on the border with Mexico — adding a seaborne border crisis would hand Congress to the Republicans on a silver platter next year.

The second thing to keep in mind is that the administration’s stand is not really hawkish. Note that Mayorkas said “if you take to the sea.” A little-covered aspect of the border surge is the presence of thousands of Cubans and Haitians traveling through Mexico with children, who sneak over the border and turn themselves in. Since January 20, they’ve almost all been released, meaning they are, in fact, “permitted to enter the United States,” and will never be made to leave, contrary to Mayorkas’s stern warning.

(I was going to include the number of Haitian and Cuban illegal-alien “asylum-seekers” apprehended so far this year at the Mexican border, using a nifty new interactive tool at the CBP website, but the range of countries you could search for just a couple of weeks ago — including Haiti and Cuba, as well as India, Venezuela, Ecuador, and even Romania — has newly been limited to Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America. I expect this was to limit news coverage of how the border crisis is attracting people from all over the world, with close to half of families turning themselves in in May coming from beyond Mexico and the Northern Triangle. Also, the June numbers have yet to be released — perhaps they’re waiting for late Friday afternoon.)

So this announced policy of turning back illegal aliens apprehended by the Coast Guard, but admitting those who turn themselves in to the Border Patrol, represents a revival of sorts of Clinton’s Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot policy, wherein Cubans caught at sea were sent back, but those who reached the beach in Florida got to stay. Only this time, your foot needs to land on the left bank of the Rio Grande.

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