Over the past ten years, it's been difficult to find politicians, be they left-leaning or right-of-center, to defend the U.S. government's "wet foot, dry foot" Cuban immigration policy. Even during the Bush administration, politicos — such as then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — called the rule an outdated relic of the Cold War. Even Marco Rubio has said it's time for the law to go.
But now that Barack Obama is the one repealing the law, Miami's Cuban Republican leaders are eager to heap the blame on him.
Obama announced yesterday afternoon that he has ended the policy, in which the government gave special treatment to Cuban migrants who reached U.S. soil but deported them if they were found floating in the ocean. Almost immediately, Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — who are both of Cuban descent — released statements excoriating Obama for what they say is another concession to the evil Castro regime.
There's another reason why both representatives are upset: Obama is also ending the Cuban Medical Professional Parolee Program, which helps Cuban doctors and nurses defect to the United States. Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart helped persaude President George W. Bush to create that program in 2006.
"With just eight days left in his administration, President Obama has found one more way to frustrate the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people and provide yet another shameful concession to the Castro regime," Diaz-Balart said in a release published last night. "Under President Obama's misguided view, after having removed the Castro regime from the state sponsor of terror list and granting diplomatic recognition, the next logical step is denying oppressed Cubans the presumption of political asylum."
Since 1966, Diaz-Balart wrote, the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act has "provided a lifeline to generations of Cubans fleeing oppression." He did not discuss why, despite the fact that scores of other repressive regimes exist, Cuba is the only country for which the United States has maintained such a policy.
Instead, Diaz-Balart, a Republican, also placed himself in the odd position of sticking up for iconoclastic artists and leftist labor organizers, writing that "renowned activists such as Berta Soler, Danilo Maldonado Machado 'El Sexto,' and labor activists including Ivan Carrillo Hernandez suffered brutal arrests just in the past few weeks."
Likewise, Ros-Lehtinen, a centrist Republican, instantly adopted some of President-elect Donald Trump's own rhetorical devices to lay into Obama, calling the "wet foot, dry foot" proposal "another bad deal."
Ros-Lehtinen focused most of her criticism on Obama's decision to cut the Cuban Medical Professional Parolee Program, which she said "was done because that's what the Cuban dictatorship wanted and the White House caved to what Castro wants," among other complaints.
"Castro uses refugees as pawns to get more concessions from Washington so there is no reason to do away with the Cuban medical doctor program, which is a foolhardy concession to a regime that sends its doctors to foreign nations in a modern-day indentured servitude," she wrote.
She then added, "In another bad deal by the Obama administration, it has traded wet foot/dry foot for the elimination of an important program which was undermining the Castro regime by providing an outlet for Cuban doctors to seek freedom from forced labor which only benefits an oppressive regime.”
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Both Republicans have spent more than ten years in Congress fighting to allow Cubans to defect to the States without visas, despite the fact that both Democrats and Republicans have increasingly disagreed with them.
Both representatives were ardent critics of the initial "wet foot, dry foot" policy, not because it was still too preferential to Cubans, as Republicans like Rubio now say, but instead because it was harmful to Cubans intercepted in the waters between Florida and the communist nation.
After 15 Cuban nationals were caught on an out-of-use bridge in the Florida Keys in 2006, immigration authorities ruled that, because that bridge did not connect to the U.S. mainland, the migrants had not yet reached U.S. soil. They were deported. But the incident sparked a massive debate, which led Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balart, and Diaz-Balart's brother Lincoln, then a congressman, to write a letter to then-President Bush. The trio then met with Bush, who amended Cuban immigration policy and instituted the Parolee Program in 2006.