The wet feet, dry feet policy or wet foot, dry foot policy was the name given to a former interpretation of the 1995 revision of the application of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 that essentially says that anyone who emigrated from Cuba and entered the United States would be allowed to pursue residency a year later. Prior to 1995, the U.S. government allowed all Cubans who reached U.S. territorial waters to remain in the U.S. After talks with the Cuban government, the Clinton administration came to an agreement with Cuba that it would stop admitting people intercepted in U.S. waters. For two decades thereafter, any Cuban caught on the waters between the two nations (with "wet feet") would summarily be returned to Cuba or sent to a third country, while one who made it to shore ("dry feet") got a chance to remain in the United States, and later would qualify for expedited "legal permanent resident" status in accordance with the 1966 Act and eventually U.S. citizenship. In January 2017, Barack Obama announced the immediate end of the policy the Thursday before his term expired.
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Between 1960 and 1980, hundreds of thousands of Cubans entered the United States under the Attorney General's parole authority, many of them arriving by boat. In 1980, a mass migration of asylum seekers—known as the Mariel boatlift—brought approximately 125,000 Cubans (and 25,000 Haitians) to South Florida over a six-month period. After declining for several years, Cuban "boat people" steadily rose from a few hundred in 1989 to a few thousand in 1993. After Castro made threatening speeches in 1994, riots ensued in Havana, and the Cuban exodus by boat escalated. The number of Cubans intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard or the U.S. Border Patrol reached a post-Mariel high of 37,191 in 1994.
Until 1995, the United States generally had not repatriated Cubans (except certain criminal aliens on a negotiated list) under a policy established when the government became Communist within two years of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Not only has the United States been reluctant to repatriate people to Cuba, but also the Cuban government typically has also refused to accept Cuban migrants who are excludable under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) (Cubans who have been convicted of crimes in the United States pose complex problems, as Cuba is among a handful of nations that does not generally accept the return of criminal aliens.)
"Normalizing" migration between the two nations was the stated purpose of the migration agreement enacted by the Clinton Administration on September 9, 1994, when the U.S. policy toward Cuban migrants was altered significantly. The plan's objectives of safe, legal, and orderly immigration relied on six points.
- The United States agreed to no longer permit Cubans intercepted at sea to come to the United States; rather, Cubans would be placed in a safe haven camp in a third location. Justifying this policy as a "safety of life at sea" issue, Cuba also agreed to use "persuasive methods" to discourage people from setting sail.
- United States and Cuba reaffirmed their support for the United Nations General Assembly resolution on alien smuggling. They pledged to cooperate in the prevention of the illegal transport of migrants and the use of violence or "forcible divergence" to reach the United States.
- The United States agreed to admit no fewer than 20,000 immigrants from Cuba annually, not including the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
- The United States and Cuba agreed to cooperate on the voluntary return of Cubans who arrived in the United States or were intercepted at sea.
- The United States and Cuba did not reach an agreement on how to handle Cubans who are excluded by the INA, but agreed to continue discussing the matter. (Grounds for removal include health-related grounds; criminal grounds; national security grounds; Nazi prosecution grounds; public charge grounds; illegal entry and immigration law violations; and lack of proper immigration documents.)
- The United States and Cuba agreed to review the implementation of this agreement and engage in further discussions.
It became apparent that the 20,000 minimum level per year could not be met through the INA preference system or the refugee provisions because of the eligibility criteria. In addition to those Cubans who may qualify to immigrate through the INA preference system and who may qualify as refugees, the United States decided to use other authority in the law (i.e., parole), to allow Cubans to come to the United States and become legal permanent residents through the Cuban Adjustment Act. Specifically, a "visa lottery" program was established to randomly select who, among the many Cubans seeking to migrate, receives a visa.
As part of the effort to enact this agreement, Operations Safe Haven and Safe Passage were executed to alleviate overcrowding at Guantanamo Bay by using temporary camps in Panama.
Cuban Migration Agreement, March 1996
On May 2, 1995, the Clinton administration announced a further agreement with Cuba that resolved the dilemma of the approximately 33,000 Cubans then encamped at Guantanamo. This new agreement, which came at the time of year when boat people traditionally begin their journeys, had two new points. Foremost, the United States allowed most of the Cubans detained at Guantanamo to come to the United States through the humanitarian parole provisions of the INA (Guantanamo).
Cuba agreed to credit some of these admissions toward the minimum 20,000 LPRs per year from Cuba, with 5,000 charged annually over three years. Secondly, rather than placing Cubans intercepted at sea in safe haven camps, the United States began repatriating them to Cuba. Both parties promised to act in a matter consistent with international obligations and to ensure that no action is taken against those repatriated. U.S. officials would inform repatriated Cubans about procedures to legally immigrate at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Those charged with alien smuggling, however, do face prison terms in Cuba.
Interdicted Cubans are given an opportunity to express a fear of persecution if returned to Cuba. Those who meet the definition of a refugee or asylee are resettled in a third country. From May 1995 through July 2003, about 170 Cuban refugees were resettled in 11 different countries, including Spain, Venezuela, Australia, and Nicaragua. The State Department is required to monitor whether those migrants who are returned to Cuba are subject to reprisals.
Special Cuban Migration Lottery
Since the 1994 migration agreement, the United States has conducted three visa lottery open seasons to implement the Special Cuban Migration Program. The three open seasons were at two-year intervals: Fiscal Year (FY) 1994, FY1996, and FY1998. The number of qualifying registrants has increased each year, from 189,000 in 1994, to 433,000 in 1996 and to 541,000 in 1998. Cubans qualifying through the 1998 lottery are still being paroled into the United States
Once selected through the lottery, the successful applicants are given parole status with a visa that is good for six months. The medical examination, required of all potential immigrants, is good for one year. Spouses and minor children may accompany the successful registrants. Over the years, there have been reports of barriers the potential Cuban parolees face, such as exorbitantly-priced medical exams, exit visas fees, and repercussions for family members who are sequestered.
Recurring issues and criticism
A well-publicized incident in June 1999 provoked outrage when the U.S. Coast Guard used pepper spray and a water cannon to prevent six Cubans from reaching Surfside Beach in Florida. A few weeks later, a Cuban woman drowned when a boat capsized during interdiction. Notably in late November 1999, the U.S. Coast Guard opted to bring six-year-old Elián González and two other survivors of an ill-fated journey to the United States rather than taking them to Cuba as the migration agreement provides.
In July 2003, a dozen people reportedly stole a Cuban-flagged boat from the marina where it was docked in Cuba and kidnapped the three watchmen guarding the marina in the process. When the boat was in international waters allegedly en route to Florida, Coast Guard officials tried to intercept it and reportedly faced violent resistance from the Cubans when they interdicted the vessel. All 15 persons on board were taken to the U.S. Coast Guard cutter and interviewed by a USCIS asylum officer. The three watchmen indicated a desire to return to Cuba. When the Cuban government offered to sentence the 12 persons implicated in crimes (purportedly boat theft, kidnapping, and assaulting federal officers) to 10 years in prison, the United States agreed to return them.
On January 7, 2006, the Coast Guard found 15 Cubans who had climbed onto a piling on the old Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys. The old bridge had been cut off from land because it was no longer in use and the United States Coast Guard argued that since the refugees could not walk to land, their feet were still "wet". The decision to repatriate the Cubans was made by the Coast Guard's legal office in conjunction with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Coast Guard stated that the Cubans "were determined to be wet-feet and processed in accordance with standard procedure."  In retaliation to the Cubans being returned, Ramón Saúl Sánchez led a hunger strike against the policy, and on January 18, the White House agreed to meet with Sánchez at some point in the near future. After eleven days, the hunger strike was ended, and Sánchez has yet to meet with White House officials. On February 28, 2007, a federal judge ruled that the United States government had acted unreasonably when it sent home the 15 Cubans. The judge ordered the government to make its best effort to help the immigrants return to the United States. Fourteen of the 15 Cubans re-landed on December 15, 2006 and were given migrant visas.
Changes in immigration patterns
Since the late-1980s immigration patterns changed. Many Cuban immigrants departed from the southern and western coasts of Cuba and arrived at the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico; many landed on Isla Mujeres. From there Cuban immigrants traveled to the Texas-Mexico border and found asylum. Many of the Cubans who did not have family in Miami settled in Houston. The term "dusty foot" refers to Cubans immigrating to the U.S. through Mexico.
Other migrants arrive in the U.S. crossing the Mona Channel that separates the Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico, the latter being a U.S. Commonwealth. Using smugglers based in the Dominican Republic, migrants make the hazardous journey using rickety fishing boats commonly called "yolas" and set foot on Isla de Mona, a small uninhabited island that is part of Puerto Rico. Once on the island, U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats pick up the migrants and transfer them to Aguadilla where they are processed by U.S. immigration.
End of policy
Beginning with the United States–Cuban Thaw in 2014, anticipation of the end of the wet feet, dry feet policy led to increased numbers of Cuban immigrants. On January 12, 2017, President Barack Obama announced the immediate cessation of the wet feet, dry feet policy. At the same time the Cuban government agreed to accept the return of Cuban nationals.
- Gomez, Alan (January 12, 2017). "Obama to end 'wet foot, dry foot' policy for Cubans". USA Today.
- "15 Cubans sent home after policy dispute". USA Today. Associated Press. Retrieved October 18, 2015.
- "Cubans deported from bridge reach U.S. on 2nd try". CNN. 14 January 2007. Archived from the original on January 14, 2007.CS1 maint: unfit url (link)
- Cobb, Russell; Knight, Paul (9 January 2008). "Immigration: Cubans Enter U.S. at Texas-Mexico Border". Houston Press.
- "Cubans using Haitian, Dominican soil to reach Puerto Rico concerns the U.S." Archived 2007-11-12 at the Wayback Machine, Dominican Today, accessed 20 April 2007
- Obama, Barack (January 12, 2017). "Statement by the President on Cuban Immigration Policy". The White House. Retrieved January 12, 2017.
- "Fact Sheet: Changes to Parole and Expedited Removal Policies Affecting Cuban Nationals". United States Department of Homeland Security. January 12, 2017.
- Whitefield, Mimi (January 12, 2017). "Obama ending 'wet foot, dry foot' Cuban immigration policy". Miami Herald.
- Ruth Ellen Wasem "Cuban Migration Policy and Issues" Congressional Research Service, Updated January 19, 2006