Wet Foot Dry Foot: The Messy Reality of Cuban Immigration

February 3, 2017 by

While President Trump’s changes to immigration policy last week filled the headlines, another less-noted change made by former President Obama also affected many would-be immigrants: those from Cuba. Shannon McPherson, who worked for a year with refugees and immigrants in Houston, TX, gives us her insight.

Cuba has been a controversial work in progress for him, but President Obama’s last finishing touch to the island was a big one. With just a week left in office, he ended “wet foot dry foot,” a policy which recognized Cuban arrivals to our border as political refugees, granting them legal residency and financial aid, no visas necessary. This rare leniency was open only to those who actually set foot on dry land (hence the nickname), while any migrating Cubans intercepted at sea were rejected. Such immigration loopholes favoring Cubans had been in effect since 1966, initially intended to provide good Cuban capitalists an out from under Castro’s communist government.

Not anymore. “By taking this step,” Obama stated, “we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.”

I realize this isn’t shattering news for most people. Two years ago, legislation regarding Cuban feet wouldn’t have turned my head either, but that changed when I moved to Houston in 2015 to work at a center providing hospitality and services to newly-arrived immigrants from numerous countries. Immediately obvious were the endless droves of Cuban refugees – and the ease with which they could establish their new American lives.

Cuban Immigrants getting onto a boat
Members of the Coast Guard rescue Cuban refugees from an island near the Bahamas.

I met new Cubans at our door almost daily that year. I cared for, listened to, and shared life with dozens, hundreds, of them. Our center provided them an initial landing pad, a safe place to recover and get oriented as they launched applications for the U.S. benefits available to them.

But the Central Americans we welcomed alongside the Cubans had a far more rugged road ahead, little hope of winning asylum, and very few allies in the system. That disparity was tough to navigate. It frustrated our other guests to watch a constant march of Cuban nationals enter, only to breeze out days or weeks later with Medicaid, housing, and legal status secured. For the El Salvadorans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Eritreans, these Cuban “rights” were at best distant dreams. Tensions between our guests often resulted, and even when I stepped in to cool combusting tempers, I wondered what was right. While the Cubans fled poverty and political restriction, gangs and government agents weren’t gunning them down. Meanwhile, every one of the Central American mothers I met grieved at least one murdered child; most, several. Deportation back to somewhere like El Salvador means death, yet I couldn’t deny that if I were a Cuban millennial, I too would be packing my bags.

Responsibility and love for both parties left me constantly pondering what I could give and who needed it most. For instance, when we had only one vacant bed left: should it go to the next Cuban who rings the front bell, or should we turn her away and save the bed for the Honduran minor that Catholic Charities was asking us to take – a child with no education and a hopeless asylum case? I felt both underqualified and too close to the reality to be making these calls.

The Cuban influx mushroomed in December 2014 when President Obama initiated communication with the Castro regime. His aim was open and deliberate: to thaw the sixty-year tensions, lift the U.S. embargo, and recommence normal relations with our nearest island neighbor.

I’d have pictured dancing in the streets of Havana. And maybe there was. But for many Cubans, this rocked the basis of their life’s dream. Normalized national relations would nullify their only out. Yes, it would end the isolation, but it would also be the death of their right to political asylum on American soil. Their opportunity was terminate; tens of thousands of Cubans would gather their savings and courage and embark.

“Why?” I’d ask them, “Things are changing. Cuba will improve soon, right?” Not according to my Cubans in Houston. Their country is impoverished and alone, three generations stagnant and outdated. They see no grounds to hang around in passive hope. It was their grandparents who last saw a different Cuba. Any change they could conceive of would not come from the island. Some hated the Castros, but not all. Many acknowledged their free healthcare and education, but wanted to lift their children out of the interminable poverty, no matter whether Castro or the embargo was to blame. Clearly, millions of other Cubans aim to stay on the island and let change find them, but the hundreds who straggled with blistered feet into my life were so dismissive of any faith in Cuba’s better tomorrow that they risked everything to make their own.

We will never know how many thousands of Cubans disappeared in the Gulf of Mexico in the last fifty years, lost to storms, sharks, and dehydration. Recently, many have flown south to Ecuador, the only country admitting them without visas. From there they launch the arduous trek to the Texan border, through nine countries, surviving regions governed by drug cartels, policed by gangs, and rife with human trafficking. There are precipitous mountain passes in Ecuador, the vast jungles of Panama, and the Mexican deserts. Coyote guides demand every cent, and crueler prices, especially of the women. I hold in my heart their countless searing stories.

As I scrolled through the White House statement, myriad faces and memories ricocheted through my thoughts: my Cubans. Don’t misread condescension in that pronoun. My life among them was too real, too bright, too gritty for quick dismissal.

I’m conflicted. In broad strokes of justice, this was a logical move. You can’t have both open relations with a country and political refugees from the same. Moreover, young Cubans will now have to focus their frustration on demanding change at home instead of walking out on it all.

But there’s a messier reality in the living, breathing details. Speaking with some of my former guests last week, I heard both gratefulness and concern: “My brother’s wife and kids were just about to leave Cuba and join him and I here,” Leoden’s voice was anxious. “They sold the house and everything to afford the trip. Now they have nothing in Cuba and can’t come here. It may be years until we see them again.”

“Thank God we’re already here,” Maidelys told me, “Pero como me duele para los en travesía todavía. I feel pain for those still en route.”

I do too. I’m hurting for the hundreds who reached the border mere days, even hours, after Obama’s announcement on January 12. Doubtless, thousands more are still plodding up through Central America or stranded in the Gulf. The welcome they pitched their lives on has evaporated, and I can imagine the betrayal they must feel. I’m praying some provision of entry will be extended to them. I know they’ve suffered enough.

Shannon McPherson lives at the Spring Valley Bruderhof community in Pennsylvania.


About the author


Shannon McPherson

Shannon is a literature student at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

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  • The story is same everywhere in world where the suffering exists. I remember Syrian migrants who try to reach to Greece. Many women and children die on the journey of the hope. Why ? For peace ... They leave their homes in Syria and try to reach to Europe for peace. This is not the world we want. The sky belongs to everyone. Everyone has right to live in peace. Thank you dear Shannon, you expressed us the situation very well . All we need to do is to share our love and bread with migrants in anywhere in the world. This is what God wants us to do.

    metin erdem
  • Thanks for broadening our vision on the issue of immigration. God's reigning in the hearts of all from beginning to end of the process has to occur: those at its cause, the victims themselves and those reaching out to help.

    Edward J Hearn