Central Americans Wonder Why ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Doesn’t Apply to Them

Published on February 19th, 2016

Wet foot, dry foot: Immigration dysfunction at its height.

A recent New York Times story about Central American illegal aliens and Cuban refugees lining up at the Mexican border took me back to my classroom days as an English as a Second Language instructor. According to the Times, the Central American aliens are bent out of shape because of the 1995 amendment to the congressionally approved 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.

Also known as “wet foot, dry foot,” the bill’s revision puts Cubans who reach the United States on an immediate track to welfare benefits, work permits and an eventual green card. Those entitlements are not automatically conferred on Central Americans who can instead be questioned, detained and possibly, but not probably, deported.

My years as an ESL teacher included 2000 when six-year-old Cuban Elián González and his family dominated the news cycle. At issue was whether González, whose mother died at sea trying to get them to the U.S., should be granted asylum or returned to his father in Cuba.

Since the story was especially prominent in the Spanish-language media, my students were fully up to date and wondered what my opinion was. I had a strict self-imposed policy that I would never talk about immigration unless one of my students asked me about it.

In the course of my explanation of the González case, I told my mostly Mexican class about wet foot, dry foot. They were disbelieving, to put it gently. They could simply not understand why the federal government had an immigration policy that so blatantly favored one nationality, Cubans, over another, Mexicans. Why, they wondered, didn’t they too qualify for asylum as soon as they stepped on U.S. soil? I had no logical answer.

During the 2016 election cycle, voters have heard endless political bombast about fixing the broken immigration system, but with nary a mention of the best example of dysfunctional immigration – wet foot, dry foot.


P.S. To readers who may have forgotten how the González saga ended … In a conclusion that would be inconceivable in the Obama era, then-Attorney General Janet Reno ordered González returned to Cuba, an action that the Supreme Court, President Bill Clinton and Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder agreed with. When the boy’s Miami relatives defied Reno’s order, she instructed law enforcement to forcefully remove him.

In a coordinated effort that involved 130 employees from Immigration and Naturalization Services, eight border patrol agents eluded an angry mob gathered outside the house of Gonzalez’s relatives, and eventually took Gonzalez. Four hours later, Elián was reunited with his father at Andrews Air Force base. The next day, they were safely back in Cuba.

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