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Cuban migrants are hoping for wet foot-dry foot 2.0. Are other migrant groups, too?

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Christian Torres
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AP
Cuban migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border at Texas.

The U.S. canceled the so-called 'wet foot-dry foot' privilege for Cuban migrants five years ago. But with record numbers of Cubans arriving at the U.S. border and Florida shores today, immigration advocates are working, in effect, to get it restored — motivating other migrant groups, meanwhile, to push for their own privileges.

Under the wet foot-dry foot policy, which began in 1995, if migrants fleeing communist Cuba were intercepted at sea, they were sent back home. If they were able to reach dry land in the U.S., they were let in the country and were fast-tracked to legal residency under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.

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In 2017 wet foot-dry foot was ended amid rising criticism of the unusual if not unfair advantage it gave Cuban migrants. But many of them arriving today are still taken aback to find out they don’t enjoy as open a door into the U.S. as Cubans once did.

READ MORE: Dems blast Lt. Gov. for saying migrants — even Cubans? — will be bused to Delaware

That includes Olivia - not her real name - who arrived at the U.S. southern border last year after a weeks-long journey from Matanzas, Cuba, through Central America and Mexico. She asked to use an alias because her case is still pending.

Once in Arizona, she asked for asylum, claiming she was politically persecuted back in Cuba because she openly criticized the regime — especially after the July 2021 anti-government protests, when she says she saw friends arrested and sentenced to 20-year prison terms.

Olivia is an accountant. And when she was let into the U.S. to wait to have her asylum case heard she thought she’d get a work permit. But last week, as she sat in the house of a friend she's been staying with in Miami, she said that even after a year, "I'm still waiting for a U.S. work permit."

If you are a Cuban migrant and you didn't get lawful entry status, you need to fight — because eventually there's going to be an appellate decision and there might be a win down the road.
Elina Santana

Like so many in the new wave of Cuban migrants, Olivia didn’t have family here to take her in — "and I don't have any money," she said. “It’s been very hard. I thought since I was a Cuban escaping the dictatorship I’d be given legal status by now. But nothing’s advancing.” 

Olivia is among the almost 200,000 Cubans who’ve come to the U.S. border in the past year as Cuba’s economy melts down and its repression ramps up. But she’s also part of another group of Cuban migrants — a large one — who are not being granted parole, or legal-entry status, by U.S. immigration officials. Being let in pending an asylum decision does not constitute legal entry.

That status would assure them work permits — and the opportunity, special to Cubans, to apply for residency under the Adjustment Act after they’ve been here for a year and a day. Even after wet foot-dry foot ended, getting parole status used to be the norm for Cuban migrants. But now more and more are not receiving it. One big reason:

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Courtesy Elina Santana
Cuban-American immigration attorney Elina Santana counseling a Cuban client.

“The government is overwhelmed because of the sheer number of Cubans crossing the border," said Elina Santana, a Cuban-American immigration attorney at the Santana Rodriguez law firm in Coral Gables.

Santana said about half of her Cuban migrant clients who arrive here have not been issued legal entry status.

“The Cuban Adjustment Act requires that you have some sort of lawful entry into the United States," Santana notes. "So what’s happening now puts these Cubans [who don't get that status] in the same category as everyone else — Haitian applicants, Venezuelans.”

That point was driven home last month by Florida’s Cuban-American Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez. On Miami Spanish-language radio, she said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had plans to kick even Cuban migrants out of the state under his program to remove undocumented immigrants.

Her remarks prompted immigration advocates to keep pushing the U.S. to relax the legal-entry criteria for Cuban migrants. Earlier this year they did convince the Biden Administration to grant parole to a broader share of them —those listed as "arriving aliens".

JUDGES' INTERPRETATIONS

Since then litigation has been filed demanding the U.S. give the parole status to just about any Cuban migrant, especially an asylum seeker who's received what’s known as an I-220A form - a release on recognizance pass - upon entering the U.S.

Santana points out that some immigration judges, including in Miami, have already started doing that. “The judges each have their own interpretation of whether the I-220 is the legal equivalent of parole," Santana said.

"So it’s a bit of a mess. But if you are a Cuban and you have an I-220, you need to fight, because eventually there's going to be an appellate decision and there might be a win down the road.”

If those lawsuits are successful, it could effectively mean the return of something like the wet foot-dry foot privilege for Cubans.

"Absolutely," said University of Miami law and sociology professor Alejandro Portes. "Cubans have learned what Central American migrants for example have learned — that the U.S. asylum system is broken, and once it releases asylum-seekers into the U.S. they can be here for years waiting for their cases to be adjudicated."

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Tim Padgett
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WLRN.org
My Voice Counts executive director Mildred Rodriguez

"Cuban [asylum-seekers] know that if they can win the legal-entry status, it will allow them to be here long enough to qualify" to apply for legal residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act, he added.

And that’s one reason other migrant groups now want their own particular immigration privileges.

This summer, Democratic U.S. Representatives Darren Soto of Orlando and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of South Florida introduced a bill — not coincidentally called the Venezuelan Adjustment Act — that would give eligible Venezuelans who were in the U.S. before this year a path to legal permanent residency.

Mildred Rodriguez of Orlando, who is executive director the Venezuelan-American non-profit My Voice Counts and a key supporter of the bill, said it "arose from the recognition that Venezuelan refugees are fleeing the same sort of repressive dictatorship Cubans are fleeing.” 

Nicaraguans, and other refugees, can feasibly make the same claim. And these days, they seem less shy about demanding what they see the Cubans get.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.