MIAMI — President Obama's decision to end the "wet foot, dry foot" policy that has allowed tens of thousands of Cubans to enter the U.S. has roiled the Cuban-American community, leaving even those who benefited directly from the policy with mixed emotions.
Obama made the surprise announcement on Thursday to end the policy, first enacted by President Clinton in 1995 to stop a growing wave of Cuban rafters that was flooding into South Florida. Under the new directive, Cubans who reached U.S. soil would be allowed to stay in the country and become legal permanent residents after one year. Those caught at sea were returned to Cuba.
Alberto Vilches was paddling north with five friends through the Florida Straits on a boat they made out of Styrofoam when, unknown to them, Clinton made his announcement. On Friday, Vilches finally completed his long journey, swearing his oath of allegiance to become a U.S. citizen thanks to the preferential treatment afforded to Cubans under the policy.
Even though he benefited from "wet foot, dry foot," the Havana native said its time had passed. He said when he arrived, Cubans were fleeing political persecution and the horrors inflicted on them by the communist Cuban regime. But now, he said Cubans are taking advantage of the program and coming only for economic gains.
"So many people who have come in these last few years come for different reasons," said Vilches, 68, a retired factory worker. "They come with a different mentality now."
That kind of response has angered other beneficiaries of "wet foot, dry foot."
Daniel Gil made 11 attempts to reach the U.S. by sea — Cuban authorities stopped him eight times and the U.S. Coast Guard caught him three times. He eventually found his way to Mexico and entered the U.S. through the southwest border in 2005, simply showing his Cuban passport to U.S. border officials as countless other migrants from other countries were trying to sneak past those officials.
Gil said it was unfair for Cubans who came earlier to close the door behind them, arguing that the same communist regime runs the country and causes the same level of misery for its people.
"The economic problem in Cuba is a political one," Gil said. "There are people on the water right now trying to get here. They are on their way through Mexico. The U.S. is a symbol to them. It is freedom, and now we've taken that away from them."
In some cases, Cuban-Americans have appeared to be arguing with themselves.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., have tried to change Cuban immigration for years. They say many newcomers are economic migrants who return to Cuba as soon as they receive their green cards in the U.S. On Thursday, both members of Congress agreed changes were needed.
"Although our country's immigration policy toward Cuba has granted many of the dictatorship's victims refuge, it has also been grossly abused and exploited by many Cuban nationals, while also inadvertently bolstering the Cuban regime," Curbelo said. "A change to the policy was inevitable."
Yet both of the Cuban-American members of Congress also bashed Obama. Curbelo complained that the policy change was "coordinated with anti-American dictators" and Rubio said it could leave real victims of political persecution without any options.
"While some changes were needed, we must work to ensure 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," Rubio said.
Augusto Maxwell, a partner with the Akerman law firm, teaches a class about Cuba at Columbia Law School and is now struggling to come up with a way to explain the complexities to his next class. He said he was at a wedding over the weekend as someone casually explained how they paid $10,000 per person to get their family out of Cuba and onto U.S. soil to gain legal status under "wet foot, dry foot."
"I wondered how I would translate that to students in New York," said Maxwell, whose parents are Cuban. "It's been so normalized that we've lost track of how unusual it is for us to incentivize people to risk their lives in such a dramatic way to escape Cuba.
"It's with great conflict that I think people are processing this."