Cuban migrants could lose easy access to green cards
Daniel González, The Republic | azcentral.com 9:21 p.m. MST February 21,
– Experts say the ‘wet-foot, dry-foot’ policy may soon end as U.S. and
Cuba normalize relations
– Fears that the policy could end has triggered a spike in Cuban
migrants trying to reach the U.S.
– Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil can stay under the policy. Those
caught at sea are sent back.
Raudys Casenave-Cambet saw no future in Cuba. Even with a professional
career as an underwater cameraman, he earned just $13. A month.
So when offered a temporary job in Ecuador earning $100 a week, he
didn’t hesitate to leave.
He never went back.
Instead, not long after arriving in Ecuador, he set out on a harrowing
3,250-mile journey to the U.S. It took him three months to reach Laredo,
Texas, where he was allowed into this country, even though he had no
A year later, he had a green card. Soon, that might not be so easy.
Casenave-Cambet is one of tens of thousands of so-called “dusty foots” —
Cubans who travel through Mexico to reach land ports along the southern
U.S. border, including Arizona, instead of by boat to Florida.
For years, it’s been the most common way for Cubans without visas to get
to the U.S. Once they do, they are allowed into the country under a
long-standing U.S. policy stemming from the Cold War.
Under the policy, known as “wet-foot, dry-foot,” Cubans who set foot on
U.S. soil are paroled into the country, and then given green cards a
year later. Those who are captured at sea are sent back to Cuba.
No other group of migrants in the world receives the same special
treatment from the U.S. But the policy’s days may be numbered.
Experts, and some members of Congress, among them U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake,
say the policy is outdated. But they say it has become even harder to
justify since the U.S. began taking steps in December to normalize
relations with Cuba for the first time in 50 years.
“It’s due for a re-examination. It has been for a while,” Flake said.
Flake said most Cubans who come to the U.S. these days are seeking
better economic conditions, not fleeing political persecution.
But under the wet-foot, dry-foot policy, those who reach U.S. soil are
automatically treated as refugees under the Cuban Adjustment Act, giving
them an advantage over other migrants.
What’s more, Cubans who receive green cards after being paroled into the
U.S. under the policy frequently return to Cuba to visit relatives,
making a mockery of the policy.
Flake noted that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has made the same point,
even though he fiercely opposes normalizing relations with Cuba.
“If there is that much fear of political persecution, then it’s kind of
belied by the travel,” said Flake, who for years has led efforts in
Congress to normalize relations with Cuba.
Normalizing relations with Cuba will make it easier for Americans to
travel to Cuba and for Cubans to travel to the U.S. That will make the
wet-foot, dry-foot policy that much more unneeded, he said.
President Barack Obama’s administration insists the wet-foot, dry-foot
policy will continue.
But Cuban officials have long complained the policy encourages Cubans to
risk their lives attempting to reach the U.S. and drains the country of
talent. The officials have renewed demands that the policy be halted as
part of normalizing relations with the U.S.
Fear that the policy may soon end has already triggered a spike in the
number of Cubans trying to reach the U.S., and it could grow bigger.
During the first three months of the current fiscal year, which started
in October, 6,489 Cubans arrived at land ports along the southern border
with Mexico, up 50 percent compared with the same three months the
“I have a lot of friends who are coming like me,” Casenave-Cambet said.
Number of refugees growing
Casenave-Cambet, 32, now lives in Phoenix with his Cuban fiancee and her
parents, who came on a green card visa in April 2009, after the
fiancee’s grandfather petitioned for them.
Casenave-Cambet, who wasn’t eligible for a visa, supports normalizing
relations with Cuba because it will make it easier to travel back and
forth and bring more trade to the island.
But he disagrees that it’s time to get rid of the wet-foot, dry-foot
policy. He believes that as long as Fidel and Raul Castro are alive,
political conditions in Cuba won’t change.
In Cuba, not only are wages abysmal even for professionals, those who
complain face being fired and prevented by the Communist regime from
getting jobs in the future, he said.
“You’d be blacklisted the rest of your life,” he said.
It is true that political conditions in Cuba are unlikely to change
while the Castros remain in power, said Maria Cristina Garcia. She is a
history professor at Cornell University and an expert on Cuban migration
to the U.S.
But not all Cubans flee because of political persecution, she said.
“Yes, there are people who are leaving Cuba because of political
repression and they have been singled out for persecution,” Garcia said.
“But there are others who are fleeing because they want to be reunited
with their families. They want to have more opportunities in the U.S.,
so the motivations are mixed.”
If the policy were ended, Cubans fleeing political persecution would
still be able to apply for asylum in the U.S., she said. They would just
have to follow the same rules as people fleeing persecution in other
“What makes Cubans more special than say a Syrian refugee, or someone
fleeing El Salvador or Guatemala?” said Garcia, who was born in Cuba and
has visited the country several times.
President Bill Clinton’s administration adopted the wet-foot, dry-foot
policy in 1995 as part of a revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act of
1966, she said.
Before that, Cubans captured at sea were allowed into the U.S., Garcia said.
The Clinton administration decided to tighten the policy, however, in
response to the 1994 Cuban boat lift. Thousands of Cubans, known as
balseros, set out on homemade rafts to reach the U.S. when word spread
on the island that the Cuban government had stopped sea patrols after
losing financial support from the former Soviet Union.
The U.S. and Cuba later reached an accord to allow 20,000 Cubans to come
legally to the U.S. every year.
But the process can take years, and increasingly Cubans are attempting
to make it to the U.S. through Mexico.
Since 2010, 53,423 Cubans without visas have arrived at U.S. ports along
the border with Mexico, according to statistics provided by U.S. Customs
and Border Protection.
The vast majority, 48,360, arrived at land ports in Laredo. Another 473
arrived at ports along the Arizona border.
And that number seeking refuge each year has risen significantly over
the past five years, up more than 200 percent.
Changing the policy would be difficult because the Cuban Adjustment Act
can’t be changed without approval from Congress, said Marc Rosenblum,
deputy director of immigration policy at the Migration Policy Institute.
But the Obama administration could try to modify the policy as part of
diplomatic negotiations with Cuba, making it harder for Cubans who reach
U.S. soil to remain, he said.
In a written statement, U.S. Customs Enforcement officials said “we
continue to seek to promote safe, legal and orderly migration from Cuba
… and deter dangerous unlawful migration ….”
Journey fraught with peril
Casenave-Cambet’s journey shows how desperate some Cubans are to leave.
He grew up in Guantanamo, not far from the U.S. naval base on the
eastern end of the Caribbean island.
He studied architecture in college before moving to Havana. There he
landed a job as an underwater-camera operator at the National Aquarium
of Cuba. He helped conduct scientific research on the lion fish, an
invasive species known for its venomous spines.
In December 2011, he accepted an offer to work for eight months as a
cameraman in Quito, Ecuador.
But he left the job after two weeks when he met a group of Cubans
planning to try to reach the U.S.
This is how he describes the journey:
Casenave-Cambet and the others set out on Feb. 10, 2012. With money
wired to him by a sister in Los Angeles, Casenave-Cambet paid a smuggler
$200 to take him to Turbo, Colombia, an eight-hour journey, on the back
of a motorcycle.
From Colombia, he traveled through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua,
Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico — before reaching the U.S.
In Colombia, smugglers abandoned the group in the jungle. He said he and
the others hiked for a week along a crocodile-infested river to reach
“We were in bad shape,” Casenave-Cambet said.
In Panama, too exhausted to continue, he turned himself in to
immigration authorities and was detained for a month.
In Costa Rica, where the Cubans split up, Casenave-Cambet said
immigration officials took his Cuban passport after he tried to apply
In Nicaragua, he paid a 14-year-old girl to drive him on a motorcycle on
treacherous back roads to evade immigration checkpoints.
In Guatemala, immigration authorities at the border wouldn’t let him
continue until he paid them off.
But the scariest moment happened in Chiapas, Mexico, shortly after
Casenave-Cambet snuck into the country hidden in the compartment of a
truck hauling plasma TVs.
The truck stopped, then he heard bursts of automatic gunfire.
When the shooting stopped, Casenave-Cambet said he crawled out and saw
11 migrants dead along the road. He said they had been shot by members
of a criminal gang who had hijacked the truck to steal the televisions
and found the migrants hidden in back.
The only reason he wasn’t killed was because the criminals hadn’t found
him under the truck, he said.
Casenave-Cambet said the criminals also beat up the driver “but for some
reason they didn’t kill him.”
He finally reached Laredo on May 14, 2012, three months after he left
“The three months of torture seemed like a year,” he said.
‘I am asking for asylum’
In Laredo, Casenave-Cambet said he walked across a pedestrian bridge
from Mexico into the U.S. but the U.S. border officer refused to grant
him parole because he didn’t have a Cuban passport.
Casenave-Cambet said he walked back into Mexico and then tried returning
in a taxi through a different port where another U.S. border officer
also refused to let him in for the same reason.
The officer handcuffed him to a chair, Casenave-Cambet said.
“I kept repeating, ‘I am a Cuban. I am on dry land. I am asking for
asylum,’ ” Casenave-Cambet said.
He said he then saw the supervisor pull out of a drawer a white card
with the words “U.S. Department of Homeland Security” written across the
Casenave-Cambet still has the card, his ticket into the U.S. On the
upper right corner, the word “PAROLED” is stamped along with the date,
U.S. border officials handed him the card, then drove him to the bus
station in Laredo. He boarded a bus to Miami, where he spent a month
living with an uncle before flying to Phoenix to meet his fiancee.
Until November, Casenave-Cambet worked at a shelter for migrant children
in Phoenix. Now, he is learning English and looking for a job as a
television cameraman. He hopes to restart the career he left behind in Cuba.
For Casenave-Cambet, the policy allowed him to make a better life in the
U.S. He worries future generations of Cubans may not be as fortunate.
“Some people say the law isn’t needed, but the reality is the Cuban
people are still suffering,” he said. “They still don’t have opportunity.”
By the numbers
53,423: Cuban “dusty foots” arriving at U.S. land ports on southern
border since 2010.
200: Percent increase in Cubans arriving at land ports since 2010.
6,489: Cubans arriving at U.S. land ports on southern border in first
quarter of 2015.
50: Percent increase in Cubans arriving first quarter of 2015 vs. same
period in 2014.
44,974: Cubans paroled into the U.S. since 2011 under “wet-foot,
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection; U.S. Citizenship and
Source: Cuban migrants could lose easy access to green cards –