There are about 44 million immigrants living in the United States, with more than a million crossing the border each year. Most do it legally, some illegally, and it’s very important to note that absolutely none of them want to steal your wife so, please, stop asking. Also: arriving at the border and asking for political asylum very much belongs in the legal category and is a long, difficult process that can take months to complete. You can’t just Jedi mind-trick the border guards by telling them the secret word of the day (“asylum”) and be let into the country without someone at least asking for your name. But the thing is… that’s kind of how immigration used to work. At least for Cubans.
Right now, there’re thousands of Cubans who got into the U.S. under the 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA). It’s a complex piece of legislation which says that any citizen of Cuba who just touches American soil will be granted entry into the country, then a permanent residency after a year, and eventually full citizenship. (Doesn’t count if the soil is in a potted plant etc.) Claudia Rojas knows all about it, having moved to the U.S. under the CAA in 2015. She explains:
“The law is known as wet foot, dry foot.”
“It usually applies to the Cuban people who come to the US by sea. If Cubans that are sailing and are caught by the coastal guard or any other police force, if they are on the sea, they are immediately deported back to Cuba. But the second they touch the ground, American soil, they are invulnerable and they will not get deported. All they have to do is tell [a U.S. official] ‘I request asylum’ upon arrival.”
It’s basically an immigration policy equivalent of tag.
If you don’t get stopped by the Coast Guard, then all of the United States become your “safe zone” from which you can’t be deported unless you commit a crime. The act was first signed into law by President Johnson in 1966 but back then it required the Cuban immigrants to be vetted before being allowed into the country. This requirement was eventually dropped and in 1995 the Clinton administration struck a deal with Castro to add the “wet feet” handicap to the deal, turning the Gulf of Mexico into a secret water level that lead you straight into the U.S. But it was a difficult journey during which many people died for a CHANCE of maybe getting into America. Claudia explains why they still risked it:
“You have to do it illegally.”
“If you’re in Cuba and you try to get a US visa, usually it will be denied … In Cuba, the Cold War is still happening. In Cuba, people are policing themselves. There are organizations, neighborhood groups, that get together to defend the revolution. The groups are called Revolution Defense Committees – if they discovered that [someone] wanted to move to the US, they’d deny jobs to their family, because they aren’t revolutionary enough.” You know, for all its talk of revolutions and rebellions, Cuba has a very Darth Vader vibe to it.
Claudia didn’t want to risk putting her family in danger so she decided to hack into the U.S. through Mexico. “[My husband and I] crossed into the US through Reynosa, Mexico,” Claudia explains. “There is a bridge and we just walked through it. We had to act like nothing bad was happening because some Mexicans at the border kill Cubans and steal their passports so they can pass into the US because of this law.”
Yes, the unintended consequence of the Cuban Adjustment Act is that it basically made Cuban passports the golden tickets to Uncle Sam’s Chocolate Blowjob Factory, and people were not afraid to kill for that.
“I have an acquaintance. They attacked him and tried to take his passport away. He went from Cuba to Ecuador and then he went north through Latin America to Mexico. When he arrived in Mexico a truck driver offered to drive him to the border. That same driver was in cahoots with other people and tried to ambush him to take his passport. He tried to take him to an isolated part of the road, he diverted course. So this friend noticed that some people were waiting for them so he jumped out of the truck and ran like hell.”
Claudia’s friend eventually arrived safely in Miami, as did Claudia and her Mexican husband Daniel, but not before a humiliating experience at the border. He says: “The majority of authority figures at the border at Reynosa are Mexican. Cubans have an advantage and a lot of Mexicans do not like it so they make their lives a living hell. They go out of their way to confiscate whatever they can, make them uncomfortable … Claudia was detained for 4 hours or such, with the constant threat of ‘We can have you here for a week if we want, so be silent’ … When they were checking [Claudia’s] luggage, they confiscated whatever they could. She’s an artist, so they took her sculptures, clothes, cosmetics etc.”
Claudia now resides in the U.S. but it hasn’t exactly been easy for her as she found out that her two degrees from the University of Havana weren’t recognized anywhere in America. Some people are fighting to help the CAA refugees but it’s an uphill battle because of how obscure the act really is. During research for this article, I reached out to immigration experts from human rights clinics and international migration and refugee resettlement agencies.
Absolutely no one could tell me more about the 1995 amendment to the Cuban Adjustment Act because no one seems to be studying it.
It’s really no surprise then that President Obama officially ended the practice back in 2017. Shortly before handing the keys to the White House to President Trump, Obama canceled the “wet foot, dry foot” policy to normalize American relations with Cuba. Now, any Cubans who want to move to the U.S. will have to do it the old-fashioned way: by getting scouted by a major league baseball team.
When not hitting the reset button on her whole life, Claudia enjoys creating art as “Don Zunzun”. You can see what she’s up to on her Instagram (@artsandclau).