With end of dry foot policy, Cuban refugees coming to Florida dwindles

FILE --In this Aug. 26, 1994 file photo, Cuban refugees float in heavy seas 60 miles south of Key West, Fla. (AP Photo/Dave Martin, File) ORG XMIT: AX702
FILE --In this Aug. 26, 1994 file photo, Cuban refugees float in heavy seas 60 miles south of Key West, Fla. (AP Photo/Dave Martin, File) ORG XMIT: AX702
Published Dec. 12, 2017

The elimination of a program that automatically granted refugee status to anyone from Cuba who could make it to U.S. soil has drastically reduced the number of people arriving here from the island nation.

In the final three months before the mid-January repeal of "wet foot, dry foot'' an average of 5,400 Cuban refugees a month registered with Florida's Department of Children and Families. That granted them immediate access to government services and financial assistance.

In June, July, August, September and October of this year, that monthly average was fewer than 550.

"My sense is the numbers from the past few months are the new normal," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington, D.C.,-based research organization Center for Immigration Studies.

"The new administration is not returning to the old status quo," he said.

The Cuban Adjustment Act passed in 1966 allowed any Cuban who reached American waters to remain in the United States and become a permanent resident. President Bill Clinton amended that in 1995 with the "wet foot, dry foot" policy stating Cubans had to make it to U.S. land.

Still, the policy treated Cubans differently from those seeking refugee status in the U.S. from those trying to escape any other nation.

In the final years of President Barack Obama's administration, as relations with Cuba improved and rumors swirled that this open-door policy would end, the number of Cubans coming through the program spiked.

While refugees do not have to register with Florida DCF, Lourdes Mesias of Lutheran Services Florida, an agency that helps new arrivals, estimates "99.9 percent" do since it is the "first aid they get until they are employed."

Overall, in fiscal year 2016 — the last full year of the dry foot policy — nearly 55,000 Cuban refugees registered with the agency.

In fiscal 2017 that decreased to a little fewer than 27,000, though around 16,200 arrived during the final three months of the dry foot era. And in January, before Obama ended the policy, around 2,500 arrived.

What's more, there were likely dry foot holdovers in the months immediately following the end of that program. From February to May, Florida DCF welcomed around 5,800 Cuban refugees.

"There was a transition period for those in transit or who arrived after ending the program," the Florida DCF said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

"It is also important to note that DCF tracks clients as they access services, so clients who access service in November with a date of entry in September will show in arrival data in November."

Only immigrants categorized as refugees and asylum seekers have immediate access to government aid. And for most foreign nationals, that status is only granted through an arduous two- to three-year application process during which time they must undergo background checks and prove they are being persecuted or need humanitarian relief.

But Cubans have had two other routes to becoming refugees — as dry foot entrants or through the still-existing Cuban Family Reunification Program that allows relatives of U.S. citizens into the country while they await permanent residence status. And neither of these categories count against an annual refugee cap.

Tampa immigration attorney Dilip Patel said there were also fewer Cubans who entered under the family program in 2017 because the process now takes longer, which also brought the total number of refugees down.

Cubans trying to enter to the U.S. under the family program used to schedule their own interviews in Havana. But Obama changed that in September 2016.

Now, family in the United States have to arrange the Havana interviews on behalf of their Cuban relatives through the U.S. National Visa Center. And that can take months of added time.

In 2016 the Congressional Budget Office reported eliminating immediate government assistance to such a large swath of Cuban refugees would save $2.45 billion over 10 years. The report was released when the dry foot program still existed.

The number of Cuban refugees may continue to drop this coming year.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana has stopped issuing visas to Cubans, a response to mysterious health attacks on American diplomats there.

Cubans must now apply for visas through embassies in third countries. But they must be present, an expensive caveat for Cubans who make $25 a month on average. So, until the issue is settled, Cuban arrivals will likely slow to a trickle.

The State Department has said it will seek alternative arrangements for Cubans seeking to come to the United States as refugees, although nothing has been announced yet.

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.