From the Editorial Board of the New York Times.
For decades, Cubans have come to see America’s “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy as almost a birthright, one of the odd arrangements spawned by a long period of hostility with the United States. It gave most Cubans who reached American soil the automatic right to immigrate, while those intercepted at sea were sent back home, often to try again.
This policy, which the Obama administration unexpectedly scrapped on Thursday, was misguided for several reasons. It encouraged Cubans to embark on perilous, and often deadly, journeys on rafts across the Florida straits and across borders in South and Central America. It exacerbated Cuba’s brain drain, particularly after 2006 when Washington created a pathway for medical professionals abroad to defect by applying for visas at American embassies. And it unjustifiably gave Cubans preferential treatment while Haitians and Central Americans who were fleeing far more desperate circumstances were deported.
The policy has served as an escape valve, giving a way out to tens of thousands of Cubans who were frustrated by the island’s authoritarian government. Young Cubans have grown up regarding immigration to the United States as an option that has become a core part of the Cuban psyche, Henry Constantin, an independent Cuban journalist, said in a phone interview.
“Now, a large number of people who had that dream, people with talent and energy, won’t know what do with it,” said Mr. Constantin, who lives in Camagüey and is critical of the government. “In an ideal world, that would lead to more private enterprise and civil society projects, but the government has not changed the legal frameworks to support that.”
It is possible, however, that this pent-up dissatisfaction will embolden more Cubans to press for economic changes and political freedoms as the era of rule by Raúl Castro draws to an end. This would be hard and risky in a police state that stifles dissent by rewarding loyalists, punishing critics and sowing division among groups agitating for change. Still, Eliécer Ávila, a prominent opposition leader who heads the group Somos + — which means “there’s more of us” — said he was hopeful that the ranks of dissident groups would swell.
“In the long run, I feel this will be beneficial by putting pressure on us to take responsibility for our homeland,” he said in a phone interview from Havana. “The fundamental problem here is not the laws of other countries but the reality we live with.”
As part of the negotiations that led to the elimination of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, the Cuban government agreed to accept a few hundred of the more than 36,000 Cubans in the United States who have outstanding deportation orders. Until recently, it was virtually impossible to deport Cubans with criminal convictions who were ineligible for immigration, because the Cuban government refused to take them back. They will now be accepted.
This long-overdue step goes a long way toward normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba. President-elect Donald Trump has said contradictory things about the Obama administration’s engagement policy. But it should be clear to his team that rolling back the recent progress would be foolish.