Their boat had run out of fuel several kilometers too soon. It had taken them so far, and brought them so close, but still not yet close enough. The group of 23 Cuban men knew that if they didn’t take the plunge into the water, their whole ordeal would have been in vain.
It was their only option: they had to abandon the boat and complete the journey by swimming. After all, they hadn’t spent three days at sea cramped in that rickety old makeshift vessel just to be sent back to Cuba.
As they leapt into the waters that transition amorphously between the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, they had one goal in mind: stand on dry land.
That’s because of the United States’ unique immigration policy toward Cubans known as ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’. Formally, the policy stems from the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 (with an important modification made by the Clinton administration in 1995).
Wet Foot, Dry Foot grants Cubans wishing to enter the United States an incentive unparalleled to that given to any other national immigrant group. Cubans who are able to physically set a foot (or even just a pinky toe, for that matter) on US soil are permitted to remain in the country legally and are put on an expedited track to gain legal permanent residency status (i.e., acquire a Green Card), and, by extension, citizenship.
The risk is well-understood by those Cubans wishing to start new lives in the US — well-understood and well worth it.
If, during the ~180 kilometer (~110 mile) journey through the Florida Straits, a would-be emigrant from Cuba is intercepted by US law enforcement (la migra), then that emigrant is returned to Cuba (or a third-party country).
If, on the other hand, that brave Cuban successfully crosses the notoriously dangerous swath of waters separating Cuba from the United States, then he or she receives a welcome and immigration process unlike that for any other want-to-be American from any other country.
For the 23 intrepid Cubans who made the trip this past Tuesday, August 4, the swim was a long one — three kilometers, they claim — but there was no turning back. In the distance stood historic Fort Jefferson, an impressive 19th century military complex on a tiny speck of an island called Garden Key, approximately 110 kilometers (70 miles) west of Key West.
Fort Jefferson now stands as the centerpiece of one of the most remote and difficult-to-access national parks in the entire US National Park Service: Dry Tortugas National Park. It can be reached by ferry or seaplane only.
I happened to be camping in Dry Tortugas on personal vacation when the group of 23 men (aged approximately 18 to 40) were completing their journey. All 23 eventually ultimately made it to land, to be greeted by park rangers and sympathetic tourists who had witnessed the final stretch of their journey.
My travel companion and I were among the handful of people on the island who spoke Spanish and could communicate with the new arrivals. We assisted by cross-translating between the Cubans’ Spanish and the park rangers’ English.
We distributed water bottles to the exhausted men as they were escorted into one of the few areas on the island offering any shade. (A reprieve from the blazing sun is an incredibly important and never-to-be-taken-for-granted feature on a set of minimally vegetated islands devoid of any of their own fresh water. In fact, the very name of the islands, Dry Tortugas, is actually a modification of their original name, Las Tortugas, meant to warn seafarers of the absence of any potable water on the islands.)
During all the emotion and excitement, several men were eager to have us answer one question: “¿Pie seco?”
Indeed, the onshore arrival of some members in the group had been delayed by their unwillingness to physically board any official (i.e., National Park Service) boat; they perceived, perhaps rightly so, any such action as potentially disqualifying them from attaining their coveted dry foot status.
In their exhausting swim toward the island, though, they sometimes stopped for rest by hanging on to the sides of private boats anchored in the water, waiting to catch their breath and renew their energy until they could resume their struggle to the shore.
The official rescission of Cuba from the United States’ short list of State Sponsors of Terrorism on May 29, 2015 and subsequent re-opening of US and Cuban embassies in Havana and Washington on July 20 — marking the full restoration of diplomatic relations between the Cold War adversaries since 1961 — have intensified perceptions by Cuban immigrant hopefuls that the advantageous Wet Foot, Dry Foot policy will soon come to an end too. Several media outlets have reported on the corresponding increase in the number of arrivals, or attempted arrivals.
Some headlines of the past several months include:
- 24 Cuban migrants come ashore in Key West — Miami Herald, August 3, 2015
- Cubans rush to U.S. shores before easy entry ends — USA Today, July 17, 2015
- Dozens of Cuban migrants have come to S. Fla within 3 weeks — Miami Herald, June 19, 2015
- 13 Cuban immigrants intercepted off Key Biscayne — Miami Herald, May 27, 2015
- Illegal Immigration 2015: Immigrants From Cuba Can Continue ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Policy, Says Obama Official — International Business Times, February 24, 2015
- Migration From Cuba Surges Amid Rumors Of End To ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Policy — Huffington Post, January 18, 2015
It is perhaps the most arbitrary, contradictory, and geopolitically inequitable US immigration policy towards another state currently active. Still, for the 23 brave men who arrived on the remote beaches of Dry Tortugas this week, one can’t help but support their willingness to alter their destinies in the land of the free and home of the brave
For indeed, it’s the courage and determination of the immigrant that made America the great nation of immigrants it’s always been, and that’s something we must never forget.
“¡Sí caballeros, ya llegaron!“, I reassured them. “¡Con pie seco y todo! ¡Felicidades!”
Below are some pictures of how the scenes unfolded this past Tuesday in Dry Tortugas National Park.
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Matthew, we had the same once in a lifetime experience as you did! We came back with 14 refugees that had been stranded 48hrs the week after your experience! Nick the Park Ranger is the best! We got to talk to the exhausted refugees and translate as you did! I gave my Nike cap to one of the young men. Thank goodness for ppl like you and me making them feel welcome!
you are their good samaritan
Thanks. I’m sitting at my desk crying. ¿Pie seco? It breaks my heart they have to ask that. Are they OK now?
Maria Padron: Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Yes; it was a very emotional scene to witness. All 23 were in good physical condition — no reported injuries or other health/medical issues.
Matthew, thanks for the great story and photos. What a great coincidence that you were on the island when this occurred, and able to translate for these brave men.
Thanks for reaching, Christopher Heid! My time in Dry Tortugas was incredible!
Soy uno de esos 23 y agradezco su colaboración para que todo quede archivado y no se olvide la odisea que vivimos
Estimado Señor Pérez Guevara,
Soy una escritora a quien le interesa mucho su experiencia. Le agradecería si mi contactara a través de Twitter o mi sitio web. En Twitter soy @DorothyPS.