On his way out of the office, President Obama finally found a group of refugees he does not want to welcome to the United States. The President formally rescinded the government’s longstanding “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which granted any Cuban who reached United States soil protected status for a year. By the terms of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who have been in the U.S. for one year are eligible for a green card; as the Washington Post points out, that law remains in effect, but what the President has done is to draw up the legal bridge that lets newly-arrived Cuban refugees reach that one-year mark. Instead, by the terms of the President’s pronouncement, they will be “subject to removal” from day one.
President Obama, in a written statement, justified the decision as part of “taking important steps forward to normalize relations with Cuba and to bring greater consistency to our immigration policy.” Whatever one thinks of President Obama’s Cuba policy, no one seriously contends that there has been any significant liberalization in Cuba’s domestic situation since we normalized U.S.-Cuban relations in December 2014. Which is to say that the underlying justification for the policy—Cuba is a repressive dictatorship, from which many of its people wish to flee—remains in effect. Nor does this policy change seem to be a priority for the Cuban government, which in any case is not in a strong enough bargaining position to dictate terms to the Administration. And the idea that President Obama is animated by a deep concern for “greater consistency [in] our immigration policy” is laughable. His entire record on immigration is one of one of bending or even “suspending” the law to accommodate the unique claims of subgroups of refugees and illegal immigrants.
The real idea here is probably to wrongfoot President (currently President-Elect) Trump on the first day he takes office. Trump, who ran on an anti-immigration platform which on several occasions included explicitly anti-Latin American rhetoric, is now faced with the choice of either starting off his term by increasing immigration flows from Latin America, or by disappointing a key Republican constituency (Cuban-Americans) and those who sympathize with them.
This is clever—and callous and cynical. Not only is this ploy undertaken at a cost to Cubans who after all are trying to flee a squalid dictatorship; it will also inflame the racial and ethnic tensions that suffuse our immigration politics. To split his opponents, Obama will poison the well further on immigration and on refugee questions in particular.
President Obama has form in this regard: his Syrian refugee policy was one of the most cynical actions of his entire Administration, in which he admitted a tiny fraction of the number of Syrians who had been driven from their homes and butchered while the President stood by for years, then tried to bait the GOP into sounding like bigots when they opposed the poorly-vetted, hastily-organized program. Likewise, the President’s larger strategy on immigration has been based on articulating maximalist visions for amnesty, legal immigration, and and refugee action all at once, rather than working toward compromise—and then demogoguing the issue (and testing much-needed limits on executive power) when Republicans in Congress did not all agree.
But the results of the recent election seem to suggest President Obama’s strategy has been a bust: millions of ordinary Americans, including many who had voted for Barack Obama twice, voted for a candidate who embodied the rejection of Obama’s approach to immigration. And it’s not likely to work as a parting shot either; Trump is not the type to shy away from controversy, nor is he one to feel encumbered by the need to be consistent. It’s difficult to say which way he will go, but it’s likely that this little landmine President Obama left behind for his successor will end up being a dud under the treads of Trump’s bulldozer.