What it means for the Keys
The repeal of the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy on Jan. 12 by outgoing President Barack Obama met with mixed reactions in the Florida Keys. This strip of islands, closest to Cuba, is where the vast majority of migrants land first. And yet, most disappear in the mainland’s maw just hours after arrival.
The Wet Foot, Dry Foot policy allowed Cuban migrants who reached land to receive political refugee status and a path to citizenship. Those interdicted at sea were sent back. Now, all Cuban refugees without a visa will be extradited to Cuba, except for some extreme cases of political persecution, according to the White House.
The policy, which has been in place since 1995, is part of the fabric of life in the Keys. A group of men sitting on the side of the road with a deputy is a common sight, instantly understood by locals. Sightings of chugs are repeated from vessel to vessel over channel 16 on the VHF radio.
It’s too soon to understand the repeal’s impact completely, but here are thoughts from different sectors of the Keys community on the new law of the land.
Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay
“I expect to see a major decrease in migrant landings. The biggest change for our agency is that before, migrants would look for a deputy so they could start the asylum process — they would be high-fiving and giving thumbs up to the deputy. Any migrant who comes now is more likely to run from a deputy. The message to deputies on how to handle immigrants is this: We don’t want to be chasing illegal immigrants that hit shore, because they haven’t committed a crime according to the state law of Florida. Our job is checking their medical status, giving them water, and contacting our partners in federal law enforcement. Migrants would have to voluntarily comply with the process.
“However, if they break a law — trespass on private property, steal a car — then it’s a different story. And if our fellow officers in federal law enforcement need our help, of course we will give it. If it’s a lawful and reasonable request, then we are going to do it.”
Wesley House Family Service CEO Beth Barrett
“I don’t think that it would have a big effect on Wesley House. Now, any families that are picked up are going to be returned to Cuba. Second, we don’t see a lot of children crossing the straits on a boat. We occasionally get families that are undocumented, and those we help as much as we can. I don’t want people to die coming over from Cuba, but at the same time I don’t know what would happen to those would-be refugees that can’t leave Cuba.”
CUBAN COMMUNITY IN THE KEYS
Former Key West City Commissioner Tony “Fats” Yaniz
“Cubans saw this coming, that’s why there was an increase in crossings. They knew that if the U.S. normalized relations with Cuba, then the citizens were going to be treated like any other citizen of a Caribbean country. As the honorary Key West ambassador to Cuba, I’ve had a lot of calls. People were telling me, ‘My brother or my mother or my sister was ready to come.’ So on an individual basis, that hits home. As far as the repeal of the policy … the 50-year embargo didn’t work. In order for capitalism to move forward in Cuba, you have to end the wet foot, dry foot policy. As my friend said, ‘The best cure for communism is a well-marketed cheeseburger.’ The majority of Cubans crossing recently came here for the economic advantage, and who can blame them? In the long run, this will benefit the Cuban people as well as everyone else.”
TOURISM INDUSTRY IN THE KEYS
Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West CEO Jodi Weinhofer
“I am not sure it does affect the lodging industry in the Keys. This is really not a policy or a group of workers that is on our radar in the Keys. Perhaps due to language barriers or family connections, there are other areas like Miami in South Florida that are a better fit for these new residents.”
MONROE COUNTY SCHOOLS
Superintendent Mark Porter
“Previously when Cuban refugees made it successfully to dry-land U.S. soil they were taken to Miami for processing. I really don’t have an accurate measure as to how many of them may have returned to Monroe County to reside and possibly enroll students in our schools. I don’t think there will be a noticeable or appreciable difference in the number of students entering the Monroe County Schools.
That said, regardless of this policy change the Monroe County Schools do continue to see significant increases in the number of ELL (English Language Learner) students. For the past couple of years we have made, and will continue to make, adjustments in our staffing models to meet the needs of this ever-growing segment of our student population.”