Monika Gonzalez Mesa | Daily Business Review | January 13, 2017
Elimination of the so-called “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy that gave Cuban immigrants an automatic path to citizenship once they reached U.S. shores will deal a heavy blow to many small and solo immigration law firms in South Florida and other places where many Cubans live.
For many immigration attorneys in South Florida, “this is an earthquake,” said David Abraham, a professor of immigration and citizenship law at the University of Miami School of Law.
“It’s going to change one of the mainstays of the local profession. It’s definitely not good for that segment of the bar, which has specialized in Cuban Adjustment,” Abraham said, referring to the law that gave Cubans the right to remain in the U.S. legally. “There’s going to be fewer clients and the conditions of the work are going to be much hurried and the law’s not going to lean in your favor as it has for the last 30 years.”
The policy put into place in 1995 by former President Bill Clinton during a heavy wave of Cuban rafters fleeing the island gave Cuban refugees an automatic path to asylum if they reached U.S. shores. Thursday, it was another Democratic president who brought an end to that policy, meaning that Cubans who arrive without visas will be considered illegal immigrants just like those who arrive from other countries. Undocumented Cubans will be detained at Krome Detention Center or similar sites.
“There will be probably many fewer Cuban [immigrants] because they won’t be undertaking this perilous journey absent being immediately paroled into the country,” Abraham said. “There will be many fewer clients, and many of them will be sitting in Krome, instead of in cafes on Calle Ocho.”
Calle Ocho is the street in the heart of Miami’s neighborhood known as Little Havana.
The “dry-foot” policy gave Cubans an automatic assumption of persecution and the presumption that they would be granted asylum. Without it, detainees face deportation and their chances of succeeding in staying will be far less, Abraham said. In some cases, they could be returned to Cuba within a week.
“It’s going to be very hard to prove that you are a victim of persecution in Cuba, and it’s been very hard to prove that for years and years,” Abraham said. “They are going to have to file an individual claim for asylum or they are deported. They might be filing such claims from detention centers rather than from the comfort of Calle Ocho.”
He said Haitians, another large immigrant group in South Florida, have about a one in 50 chance of proving the need for asylum, and Cubans chances are not going to be any better.
Abraham said the change won’t affect big law as much as the small and solo firms that more often take Cuban Adjustment Act clients.
But that’s not to say there won’t still be Cuban immigrants and work for their attorneys. About 25,000 immigrant visas have been issued by the U.S. to Cubans each year for several years—a large number for a country of 11 million, Abraham said.
In addition to those 25,000 visas, Cuban tourism to the U.S. has increased in recent years. Many Cuban tourists could become eligible for immigrant status once here if they were to find a spouse or skilled job here, and that would compensate for some of the lost Cuban Adjustment Act work. Immigrants can be sponsored by their families as well.
“It’s going to create a whole new class of clients because Cubans have in the past have had such an easy go of it,” said Gordon Quan, founding partner at Quan Law Group in Houston, who has been practicing immigration for 40 years. “Now they are going to have to go through the same scrutiny as everybody else.”
Quan’s firm has 10 attorneys, and only about 3 percent of the firm’s work currently involves Cuban immigrants, but he thinks that’s largely because it has been such a simple process that many go to charities for help or storefront law firms that don’t charge as much. Now, instead of telling a Cuban client to come back in a year to file papers, he will spend time analyzing the individual’s educational background, checking whether they have relatives who are potential sponsors, or if they have a valid claim for asylum. He believes having to prove the need for asylum will create more work for his firm.
“We have to show that they have a real fear of returning, and that was not required in the past,” Quan said. “More times than not, they are denied at that point.”
Yet while immigration practitioners in South Florida are certain to feel the change, the effects could be felt by practitioners in other areas of the law as well, including social security and landlord-tenant attorneys, said Hector Chichoni, an immigration partner at Duane Morris in Miami. The stream of incoming Cubans created customers for starter apartments and other small businesses, he said.
In addition, immigration lawyers who fight removal and deportation may see an increase in work, Chichoni said.
“Removal work is hard and requires skill,” Chichoni said, adding that he expects to see important legal challenges stemming from the changes to the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy. “Some of the most creative work in the area of U.S. immigration has been done in this area.”