In January 2017, President Obama eliminated the decades-long policy of “wet foot, dry foot” that allowed Cubans who made it to the United States to enter legally in order to apply for a green card under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. Prior to the change, the numbers of Cubans had steadily increased to the highest levels since the early 1990s. At the time, I wrote:
Because the normal asylum system is so backlogged, [ending wet foot, dry foot] could result in Cubans filing asylum claims under the normal system, as Central Americans do … The current asylum system, which is already massively backlogged, will only grow more so as a result. At a time when a record number of asylum seekers from Central America are coming to the border, the United States is going to throw the Cuban refugees in with the rest, making a dysfunctional system that much more broken.
While the number of Cuban arrivals did drop precipitously, the numbers have spiked once Cubans understood that they could access the normal asylum process. Figure 1 shows the number of “credible fear” claims—which trigger the start of the asylum process at the border or ports of entry—by Cubans since December 2016, rising from none to more than 1,000 in December 2018 and January 2019. Altogether, Cubans have submitted about 11,000 asylum claims. They first cracked the top 5 nationalities for credible fear claims in April 2017, and they have seen a 708 percent increase since then.
So far in the first four months of fiscal year 2019 (starting in October 2018), Cubans have averaged 11 percent of all credible fear claims, which is remarkable given the surge of Central Americans during this time. In December 2018, they reached 14 percent of all claims and cracked the top 3 nationalities with the most claims for the first time (knocking out Salvadorans). It is clear that the end of wet foot, dry foot has only contributed to further overwhelming the nation’s asylum system.
Cubans who used to come to the U.S. ports of entry along the Mexican border to seek wet foot, dry foot protection continue to apply for asylum at ports of entry. The Trump administration’s metering policy at ports—which places a hard cap on the number of asylum claims that can be made per day—is actually limiting the growth in the Cuban asylum claims.
The limit is causing long backups at ports of entry as rejected applicants pile up on the Mexican side awaiting their turn. Cubans first tried to enter at ports in the Laredo field office in Texas because it is the shortest trip. But Figure 3 illustrates how the policy of metering—which came into full force in mid-2018—caused Cubans who were pushed back at the Laredo ports to move further west to the El Paso ports and try again there. This increased the share of Cuban claims at El Paso from 1 percent to 54 percent.
Partly as a result of the metering, the arrivals at ports are still far below the levels in late 2016 (Figure 4). But we don’t have figures for Cuban arrivals between ports of entry, and we know that metering already causes Central Americans seeking asylum to cross illegally between ports. Cubans have such a long tradition of entering through ports and may face fewer cartel threats in Mexico that it is possible that they are still waiting on the other side of the border. On the other hand, homelessness in Mexico is untenable, so it is likely that Border Patrol will witness an increase in crossings between ports by Cuban asylum seekers this year.
Whatever the case, ending wet foot, dry foot has exacerbated America’s immigration problems. Yes, the flow of Cubans is lower now, but under the old policy officials could simply parole the arrivals into the country without spending an enormous amount of resources on interviews, transportation, detention, and courts. Forcing Cubans to undergo the formal asylum process has only further burdened the system.
The administration should restore the wet foot, dry foot policy, which worked for this country for decades. The ultimate result was that more than a million Cubans freed themselves from a communist regime under the policy. As I have stated before, Cubans don’t receive special treatment because they are inherently unique but because Cuba was—until Venezuela—the only not free country in the Americas, according to Freedom House. The law states that the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 would end only when “a democratically elected government in Cuba is in power.”
This was a sound principle and one that should be expanded to Venezuelans. Taking Cubans and Venezuelans out of the broken asylum system would streamline the process for everyone else and make the asylum process function better than it does under the status quo.