Next month President Obama will meet with his Western Hemisphere counterparts at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.  Reshaping relations with the government of Cuba will surely be part of his discussion with regional leaders.  President Obama should be prepared to tell them that he will work with Cuba to begin normalizing immigration policy in the interest of saving lives and improving homeland security.

Cubans attempting to enter the U.S. illegally are uniquely handled under an immigration law descriptively known as “wet foot/dry foot”.  Migrants attempting to travel by sea across the Straits of Florida to the U.S. attempt to evade Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) law enforcement officers searching for them with high-speed boats and aircraft.  If they are intercepted at sea (wet foot) they are transferred to a large Coast Guard cutter offshore where they receive food and medical treatment.  The migrants are individually interviewed by a seasoned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) officer and the results of the interview sent to Washington to determine if a person has “credible fear” of persecution if returned to Cuba.  Over 95% of the migrants are found to have no “credible fear” and returned to Cuba where U.S. diplomats attempt to monitor their well-being.

The small number of migrants determined to have “credible fear” are sent to a facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (well separate from the terrorist holding facility) where they undergo additional screening and concerns are investigated.  If it is determined they have “well-founded fear” of persecution, arrangements are made to settle them in a third country.  Those failing to prove “well-founded fear” are returned to Cuba.

Those Cuban migrants lucky enough to reach U.S. soil (dry foot) are unique among illegal migrants in the U.S. in that they willingly turn themselves into immigration authorities.  Under the “wet foot/dry foot” laws, they are automatically paroled into the U.S. and after one year are given permanent resident status.  If an illegal migrant successfully runs the gauntlet of law enforcement at sea and successfully makes it to the U.S. shore; they are given legal status in the U.S.

The “wet foot/dry foot” law was enacted when illegal Cuban migrants were traveling mostly by small boats and rustic craft.  Today, the preferred method of traveling is in relatively small, high-speed boats driven by smugglers who have little regard for their human cargo.  Migrant families in the U.S. often pay the smugglers over $10,000 to transport a loved one.  Law enforcement officers pursue these high speed boats attempting to stop them before they reach the U.S. shore and this has led to tragedies at sea where men, women and children have died or suffered serious injuries when boats capsize.  It is dangerous for our law enforcement officer as well when smugglers try to ram their patrol boats at high speed.

A new and equally dangerous trend has emerged in the past several years.  Rather than run the gauntlet in the Straits of Florida, smugglers are now taking migrants from Cuba to Mexico where they must make not only a dangerous sea voyage but work their way through Mexico to the U.S. southwest border.  If they make this hazardous trip successfully, they need only present themselves to a U.S. immigration officer where, because they are standing on U.S. soil, they are automatically paroled into the U.S. under the “wet foot/dry foot” law.

In FY-2008 the Coast Guard alone spent $507 million on migrant interdiction, the majority going toward interdicting Cuban migrants.  If the “wet foot/dry foot” law is terminated, there will not be such great pressure to apprehend Cuban migrants at sea and some interdiction resources could be refocused on higher threats coming from sea.  Cuban migrants would be discouraged from making the dangerous sea journey directly to the U.S or through Mexico knowing they could be returned to Cuba even if they do make it to U.S. soil.

The U.S. cannot change the “wet foot/dry foot” policy unilaterally.  It was put in place in part to protect Cubans from a repressive government and that concern still has merit.  Every year the U.S. offers over 25,000 immigrant visas to Cuban citizens as a legal way to enter the U.S. but the Cuba government often denies exit papers to those with special skills.  They have also limited the number of people that can apply for visas, making it difficult for the U.S to issue the desired number of visas.  Cuban leaders have prevented contact between U.S. diplomats and returned migrants making it nearly impossible to determine if they are suffering persecution.  The government of Cuba also refuses to accept the return of any Cuban citizen who has been paroled into the U.S., preventing the deportation of Cuban citizens who would normally be sent out of the U.S. because of felony convictions.

The “wet foot/dry foot” law worked well in the past but has evolved into a dangerous undertaking for both migrants and law enforcement.  It is time to begin normalizing immigration laws concerning Cuban citizens.  The U.S. and Cuba should begin a dialogue now that results in safer, more controlled immigration that guarantees the human rights of Cuban citizens and protects our borders.  The Summit of the Americas is an excellent place to get the dialogue started.