I’m A Cuban-American Who’s Glad Obama Ended Special Status For Cuban Immigrants
Now that Cubans no longer have an easier path, Cuban-Americans need to join forces with other immigrant groups and fight the good fight.
I n a controversial move during his last days in office, President Barack Obama has ended a 22-year-old policy that allows any Cubans who make it to U.S. soil to seek a visa-free path to residency. Although the sudden order, issued January 12, has left thousands of Cubans stuck in transit and Cuban-Americans grappling with a range of emotions, I believe that this change is exactly what we need during this turbulent time.
My own family came here in 1994, just before President Bill Clinton created the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that revised the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which allowed anyone who fled Cuba (even those caught at sea) to the United States to become legal residents a year later. I was only eight years old at the time, so I didn’t know what the 1995 policy meant or how it affected the dozens of family members and friends I have seen come to America since.
Growing up in Miami, I remember watching the news with my parents and seeing Cubans being chased by cops on Miami beaches. “If they set foot on the sand, they can stay,” my parents explained, “but if they’re caught in the water, they get sent back.” Horrified, I always hoped that the Cubans desperate enough to cross the hundred plus miles from the Caribbean island to the Land of the Free by tiny boat would be safe and able to seek the same opportunities that had been afforded to me.
But as I grew up and learned more about history and politics, I realized that there was a huge difference between Cuban immigrants and everyone else who came here from another country in hopes of a better life: They were afforded certain privileges that allowed them to basically never, ever be classified as “illegal” or “undocumented.”
I believe that this change is exactly what we need during this turbulent time.
The ending of “wet foot, dry foot” means that this privilege is over. Per Obama’s statement, “Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with U.S. law and enforcement priorities.”
I am sure that this angers many of my fellow Cuban-Americans to the core. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, already not a huge fan of President Obama (to say the least), stated that he agrees “some changes were needed” but expressed concern that “Cubans who arrive here to escape political persecution are not summarily returned to the regime, and they are given a fair opportunity to apply for and receive political asylum.”
While I agree with the senator that I hope those who are seeking true political refuge are able to receive it, I can’t help but view this policy change as positive.
The truth is that Cubans in the U.S. have been enjoying and abusing the privilege of easy residency for many years. As such, most Cuban-Americans I know, especially those of my parents’ generation, wholeheartedly support the GOP and many—54%—voted for President-Elect Trump in Florida. Comparatively, only a quarter (26%) of non-Cuban Latinx voted the same.
This statistic, to me, is tragic. Amidst a campaign of hatred that began with calling out Mexican immigrants for bringing drugs, crime, and being rapists, the man who is about to become the president of the free world has stood on a firm platform of anti-immigration. His own website states that he plans to “begin working on an impenetrable physical wall on the southern border, on day one.” It still also states that Mexico will pay for the wall, despite President Enrique Peña Nieto saying clearly that “Mexico of course will not pay.”
To be an American, Hamilton demonstrates, is to be an immigrant — and also to draw borders, and build walls.theestablishment.co
So what does all of this mean for Cubans now facing their very own undocumented status should they try to immigrate to the United States and the Cuban-Americans who are enraged by this policy change?
It means that we have to join the fight.
It means that we have to open our eyes to the realities of what other Latinx people and fellow immigrants face in the U.S. without our cushy visa-free path to residency and, ultimately, citizenship. And it means that we can no longer rely on this policy to give us the life we want.
What I truly hope will happen now that “wet foot, dry foot” is repealed (especially since it is unlikely that Trump will reinstate it after he takes office) is that Cuban-Americans will begin to fight for much-needed immigration reform.
That’s my plan, anyway.
The truth is that the next four years are going to be difficult for anyone with even slightly brown skin, like the thousands of Cubans who come to this country yearly. But immigration has always been difficult. And Cubans are the only immigrant group that receive this kind of favoritism, a leftover from the Cold War when Americans were freaked out about the rise of Communism so close to home. But what about immigrants from China or North Korea? What about refugees? What about every other group who works hard, travels long miles, suffers untold tragedies and difficulties in trying to make it to America?
These immigrants need and deserve some kind of immigration reform. The system is broken here in the U.S., the land where our nation’s biggest symbol — the Statue of Liberty — clearly welcomes “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
If our immigration system weren’t broken, then there wouldn’t currently be an estimated 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States—a statistic that has never included Cuban immigrants.
The system is broken here in the U.S., the land where our nation’s biggest symbol — the Statue of Liberty — clearly welcomes “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Now that Cubans can no longer enjoy this easy path to a better life, Cuban-Americans need to join forces with other immigrant groups around the country and fight the good fight. We can’t look at this new change in policy as something we lost. Instead, we need to look at it as something we stand to gain.
We can fight for and gain immigration reform.
We can fight for and gain a clear path to citizenship for children of immigrants who themselves come here at a young age. We can fight for and gain better access to health care for the undocumented who did not qualify under the Affordable Care Act (of course, if Obamacare truly disappears, this may be an even bigger problem for everyone else too).
And ultimately, we can fight for and gain legalization for the nation’s current undocumented immigrants, which would boost our economy.
Cuban-Americans, a population of about two million people that represents about 3.7% of all Hispanics, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, need to join this fight.
My heart hurts for the Cubans who are currently stranded, as they were trying to make their way to the U.S. when President Obama made this historic announcement. But I can’t help but think that, finally, Cuban-Americans have received the kick in the you-know-what that they need to stop relying on a political party that has sought to undermine immigration in this country.
Whether or not we will rise to the occasion is still up for debate. Yet I believe in my fellow Cuban-Americans and in our ability to empathize with other immigrants and Latinx people as we strive to make a better America for all people.