During the last moments of his presidency, Barack Obama took action on immigration. For the past year, Democrats have been chiding Republicans for their stance on immigration. And for good reason. Of course there were President Trump’s remarks about who Mexico was “sending” over to the United States, Chris Christie’s refusal to allow 5-year-old orphan refugees from Syria into the country, the more recent immigration ban on seven Muslim majority countries, and Kellyanne Conway’s “Greenville Massacre” lie.
Democrats took the high road, immediately aiding those under rhetorical fire. In fiery campaign trail speeches, viral Facebook posts, and Senate floor speeches where the cameras roll live, Democrats made clear their view on the issue. They announced to the nation and to the world that the United States is a safe haven, that refugees are welcome, and that those looking for a better life are celebrated.
So naturally, exactly one week before the inauguration of Donald Trump, former President Obama ended one of the few policies that reflected those attitudes. “Wet foot, dry foot,” as it was so affectionately referred to, was a U.S policy signed into law by the Clinton administration that guaranteed any person fleeing Cuba who reached United States shores could pursue residency.
The policy also emerged amidst a slight shift in U.S policy towards Cuba. Before, if the Coast Guard came across refugees in U.S territorial waters, then they would be granted those rights. With this change, Cuban refugees needed to reach land. And they did. 75,000 of them since October of 2014 have been processed by U.S Customs.
Let’s stop here for a moment, and backtrack a bit. Why was this policy implemented in the first place?
In 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban-Bautista government. He expressed a populism that enticed the Cuban people: equality and communism. He used propaganda as a means by which to strengthen his grip on the affections of his people.
I can recall my great-grandmother telling me some of those stories.
She told me about how military men would go into underprivileged schools on the island. They would visit each classroom. While there, they would ask the children, whose family lives included constant food insecurity, to close their eyes and ask God for food. The children obeyed, and of course, when they opened their eyes, no food would appear in front of them. Then the soldiers would ask the children to again close their eyes, but instead this time, ask Fidel to give them food. When the children closed their eyes, the soldiers would roll food in by the pound on carts.
In that moment, Castro was their savior, perhaps even their God.
Make no mistake, though. Fidel Castro and his cruel regime were anything but benevolent. Throughout his nearly five-decade regime, Castro seized private family businesses, assets, and even homes. He ordered that the Cuban people spy on their neighbors to sniff out enemies of the state. In an effort to silence dissidents, he imprisoned thousands of political prisoners. In the most severe cases, political opponents were killed, by the infamous firing squads.
Even today, the political climate of Cuba, has many, if not at all, human rights organizations gravely concerned. As an example, look at their 2015 “Freedom House” score report. Freedom House ranks oppression of the freedom of the press on a scale of 0 to 100. “0”, being the best, and “100”, being the worst. In 2015, Cuba scored a 91. In every measure, according to the Freedom House scores, Cuba ranks as a blatant human and political rights violator.
Human Rights Watch, a similar group, outlines the activity of the Cuban government, details the over 6,000 arbitrary detentions in 2015, and explains that Cubans who criticize the government continue to face criminal prosecution, among other things.
Often times, literacy rates and health care as used as indicators of changing times for Cuba. But it’s important to analyze these metrics thoroughly, before using them to assert supposed progress for the Cuban people
Yes, their is almost universal literacy in Cuba. But there certainly is not any semblance of a freedom to an education. Education is limited to the promotion of the state. Classes must be approved by the state, any criticism of socialism is explicitly prohibited, and recipients of higher learning are obliged to actively promote state policy both in and out of school.
Yes, healthcare is universal, in that all Cuban citizens have a right to medical care. The access to that healthcare, however, is absolutely not universal. For underprivileged Cubans today, health care is abysmal. In some cases, patients are required to supply their own sheets, soap, towels, food, and light bulbs. In the rural parts of Cuba, diseases such as tuberculosis, leprosy, typhoid fever, and dengue ravage those without adequate assistance.
This is and most certainly was the Cuba which inspired the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. Did the U.S also score geo-political points by hurting a then Russian ally? Sure. But the atrocities experienced by the Cuban people are real and true.
For almost 50 years, for the people of Cuba at least, the United States lived up to the promises being spoken by today's Democrats. For Cuban refugees, for Cuban families, for Cuban children, the United States was a land where they were welcome.
Which is why former President Obama’s decision was so very unnerving. This is a political era marked by what Democrats characterize as xenophobic attitudes, rhetoric, and now policies. To watch Democrats sit by and seemingly abandon those core principles, the ones they hoped would lead them to electoral victory, is dismaying, to say the very least.
The future of the Cuban people is unclear. As of late there has been an uptick in the amount of people fleeing the country for the United States, and that pattern is unlikely to change in response to former President Obama’s actions. What it means now, is that the Cubans coming now will be considered, by this administration especially, illegal. They will be subject to the same pains, which immigrants from other countries have had to endure for decades. That by no means is a sign of progress in our immigration system. To say that there is equality now is true, at least technically. But equality under a failing immigration system is by no means justice at all.
What this means ultimately, however, is that the Democratic party has failed to live up to their promises. It means that the hope of a brighter future will seem much farther for the Cuban people than it once did. Much farther than the 90 miles between their shores and the Florida Keys would suggest.