In Addressing Cuba Policy, President Trump Hits a Wall

One of the mainstays of President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was an unabashedly hardline opposition to illegal immigration. Many of Trump’s promises on the trail—often met with resounding chants of “build the wall” from his supporters—were aimed at restricting the influx of Latin American immigrants into the United States. For a short time, when Trump’s campaign focused its efforts on Florida, the one notable exception to this rhetoric was Cuban immigrants. But now, as the Trump administration’s vision of immigration reform begins to take shape, Cuban migrants are feeling unexpectedly anxious.

In December 2014, when relations between Havana and Washington began to improve, a path toward U.S.-Cuba diplomatic normalization became a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy platform. Obama’s argument was simple: engagement between the countries was in the best interest of both Cubans and Americans.

“Created by the Clinton administration in 1995, the policy allowed Cubans who touched U.S. soil (“dry foot”) to stay in the country and pursue legal citizenship, while migrants detained before reaching shore (“wet foot”) were sent back to Cuba.”

But a week before Trump’s inauguration, then-President Obama repealed the so-called “wet foot/dry foot” rule, abruptly ending a decades-old immigration policy affording special immunities to Cuban migrants. The rule was originally designed to accelerate the path to legal residency for those fleeing Cuba en route to the United States.

Created by the Clinton administration in 1995, the policy allowed Cubans who touched U.S. soil (“dry foot”) to stay in the country and pursue legal citizenship, while migrants detained before reaching shore (“wet foot”) were sent back to Cuba. The Cuban government had long protested the existence of “wet foot/dry foot,” arguing that the policy encouraged native Cubans to leave the country in waves, often via dangerous means.

The termination of the rule means Cubans who want to migrate to the United States will have to apply for visas before leaving the country or face the prospect of being deported upon arrival. On the policy change, Obama stated that the rule was “designed for a different era,” when diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States were at an impasse. The repeal marked the conclusion of the extended period of unique privileges provided to Cuban immigrants.

The timing of the Obama administration’s decision to end “wet foot/dry foot” has created a new set of foreign policy concerns for the new administration. During the last few weeks of the Obama administration, officials worked tirelessly to convince Trump’s transition team to continue advancing diplomatic relations with Cuba. However, post-inauguration, the Trump administration’s Cuba foreign policy agenda still remains unclear, particularly since its views on the country were inconsistent throughout the campaign trail.  

Early in the presidential campaign, Trump broke with the Republican Party platform on Cuba, stating his support for the normalization of relations with the communist country. Nevertheless, after becoming the party’s nominee in 2016, Trump said, if elected, he would undo some of the normalization efforts made by the Obama administration if the Cuban government did not ease restrictions on religious and political liberties. In October, Trump called agreements negotiated by the Obama administration “very weak,” and told CBS he would break off any type of contact with Cuba—positive or negative—if it meant “getting a strong agreement.”

“Cubans en route to the United States continue to gather near the Mexican border, hoping that the Trump administration will give them amnesty or reinstate the ‘wet foot/dry foot policy.'”

The abrupt end of “wet foot/dry foot” during such a tumultuous transition period in U.S.politics has had jarring transcontinental effects. Since the policy was discontinued on January 12, hundreds of Cubans have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border only to be turned away. Mexican authorities reported that they have deported dozens of Cuban immigrants back to the island instead of giving them a 20-day transit visa, as was previously the norm.

Cuban immigrants in Mexico are stranded for the time being. Those who hope to make the remainder of the journey to the United States must now wait on President Trump’s still unclarified Cuba policy plans. Yet, these past couple of weeks, as Trump signed executive orders to triple the size of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to begin the construction of a new U.S-Mexico border wall, the White House has remained silent about its Cuba foreign policy.

Cubans en route to the United States continue to gather near the Mexican border, hoping that the Trump administration will give them amnesty or reinstate the “wet foot/dry foot policy.” Many have been separated from their families, leaving loved ones behind in their home country, or hoping to reunite with those who made the trip before them. Many more are potentially still traveling via land or sea, unaware that U.S. soil is still far from their reach.

Regardless of how President Trump chooses to address Cuba foreign policy, he faces a dilemma when it comes to Cuban migrants: Trump may have run for office on a stringently anti-immigration platform, but he’s also vowed to roll back the Obama administration’s path to normalization with the island country; he has said in the past that “wet foot/dry foot” was a fundamentally unfair policy, but has openly denounced and wants to crack down on Cuba’s communist government. Meanwhile, hundreds of Cubans find themselves unexpectedly marooned on the Mexican border, hoping for presidential compassion in place of a newer, higher wall.

ImageSunset in Havana, Cuba. (Bryan Jones, Flickr, Creative Commons)


Audrey Bowler works at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. She is a recent graduate of Gettysburg College, where she majored in political science and peace & justice studies. Bowler previously worked as a journalist and social media editor for The Eisenhower Institute, and interned for PolitiFact and the Office of U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA). She can be found at @aud_bowler on Twitter.

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