Immigration Rules for Cuban Nationals

Havana, Cuba
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For years, the United States was chided for giving migrants from Cuba special treatment that no other group of refugees or immigrants had received with the former "wet foot/dry foot policy." As of January 2017, the special parole policy for Cuban migrants was discontinued.

The discontinuation of the policy reflects the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and other concrete steps toward the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations that President Barack Obama initiated in 2015.

Storied Past of the "Wet Foot/Dry Foot" Policy

The former “wet foot/dry foot policy” put Cubans who reached U.S. soil on a fast track to permanent residency. The policy expired on January 12, 2017. The U.S. government had initiated the policy in 1995 as an amendment to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act that Congress passed when Cold War tensions ran high between the U.S. and the island nation of Cuba.

The policy stated that if a Cuban migrant was apprehended in the water between the two countries, the migrant was considered to have “wet feet” and was sent back home. However, a Cuban who made it to the U.S. shore can claim “dry feet” and qualify for legal permanent resident status and U.S. citizenship. The policy had made exceptions for Cubans who were caught at sea and could prove they were vulnerable to persecution if sent back.

The idea behind the “wet foot/dry foot policy” was to prevent a mass exodus of refugees such as the Mariel boatlift in 1980 when some 125,000 Cuban refugees sailed to South Florida. Over the decades, untold numbers of Cuban migrants lost their lives at sea making the perilous 90-mile crossing, often in homemade rafts or boats.

In 1994, the Cuban economy was in dire straits after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuban President Fidel Castro threatened to encourage another exodus of refugees, a second Mariel lift, in protest of the U.S. economic embargo against the island. In response, the U.S. initiated the “wet foot/dry foot” policy to discourage Cubans from leaving. The U.S. Coast Guard and Border Patrol agents intercepted roughly 35,000 Cubans in the year leading up to the policy’s implementation.

The policy was wrought with extreme criticism for its preferential treatment. For example, there were migrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic who had arrived on U.S. land, even on the same boat with Cuban migrants, but were returned to their homelands while Cubans were allowed to stay. The Cuban exception had originated in Cold War politics from the 1960s. After the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs, the U.S. government viewed migrants from Cuba through a prism of political oppression. On the other hand, officials view migrants from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and other nations in the region as economic refugees who almost always would not qualify for political asylum.

Over the years, the “wet foot/dry foot” policy had created some bizarre theater along Florida’s coasts. At times, the Coast Guard had used water cannons and aggressive interception techniques to force boats of migrants away from land and prevent them from touching U.S. soil. A television news crew shot video of a Cuban migrant running through the surf like a football halfback trying to fake out a member of law enforcement by touching down on dry land and sanctuary in the United States. In 2006, the Coast Guard found 15 Cubans clinging to the defunct Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys but since the bridge was no longer used and cut off from land, the Cubans found themselves in legal limbo over whether they were considered dry foot or wet foot. The government ultimately ruled the Cubans were not on dry land and sent them back to Cuba. A court decision later criticized the move.

Despite the expiration of the former policy, Cuban nationals have several options to apply for green card or permanent resident status. These options include the general immigration laws afforded all non-Americans seeking immigration to the U.S. through the Immigration and Nationality Act as well as the Cuban Adjustment Act, the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, and the Diversity Green Card lottery held every year.

The Cuban Adjustment Act

The Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) of 1996 provides for a special procedure under which Cuban natives or citizens and their accompanying spouses and children may get a green card. The CAA gives the American Attorney General the discretion to grant permanent residence to Cuban natives or citizens applying for a green card if they have been present in the United States for at least 1 year, they have been admitted or paroled, and they are admissible as immigrants.

According to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), Cuban applications for a green card or permanent residence may be approved even if they do not meet the ordinary requirements of Section 245 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Since the caps on immigration do not apply to adjustments under the CAA, it is not necessary for the individual to be the beneficiary of an immigrant visa petition. Additionally, a Cuban native or citizen who arrives at a place other than an open port-of-entry may still be eligible for a green card if USCIS has paroled the individual into the United States.

The Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program

Created in 2007, the Cuban Family Reunification Parole (CFRP) Program allows certain eligible U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to apply for parole for their family members in Cuba. If granted parole, these family members may come to the United States without waiting for their immigrant visas to become available. Once in the United States, CFRP Program beneficiaries may apply for work authorization while they wait to apply for lawful permanent resident status.

Diversity Lottery Program

The U.S. government also admits about 20,000 Cubans each year through a visa lottery program. To qualify for the Diversity Via Program lottery, an applicant must be a foreign citizen or national not born in the United States, from a country with a low immigration rate to the U.S. People born in countries with high U.S. immigration are excluded from this immigration program. Eligibility is determined only by the country of your birth, it is not based on country of citizenship or current residence which is a common misperception that applicants make when applying for this immigration program.

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Moffett, Dan. "Immigration Rules for Cuban Nationals." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Moffett, Dan. (2023, April 5). Immigration Rules for Cuban Nationals. Retrieved from Moffett, Dan. "Immigration Rules for Cuban Nationals." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).