When we were researching Lawtalk we discovered that even very serious subjects could have lighthearted labels. One of the most striking is the term wet foot, dry foot, used to capture the oddities of U.S. immigration law as applied to Cuba. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 created a unique deal for those who fled Castro's Cuba: instead of having to prove political persecution individually, they were assumed to be entitled to asylum. But during the Clinton administration, negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba resulted in a new rule: Cubans intercepted at sea would no longer be allowed to enter the United States. The effect of the two rules together is that Cuban refugees who make it to dry land get automatic asylum, but those who are still in the water do not.
How did this get the name wet foot, dry foot though? We started with a historical newspaper database and found what we believe to be the earliest use of the term -- by a Miami Herald reporter who had been interviewing the assistant chief of Border Patrol. Then through the wonders of internet research, we tracked down both men and learned a great story. The reference doesn't just sound sort of like Dr. Seuss, it is based on his work.
The reporter, Yves Colon, was trying to find out why, in a dramatic incident involving oars vs. fire hoses, the Coast Guard had tried so hard to keep some Cubans from reaching shore. The Border Patrol's spokesman, Dan Geoghegan, was trying to explain how the law about Cubans works. He had young children who sometimes visited him at work, and some of their toys were in his office. Geoghegan's eyes fell on a box of Dr. Seuss flashcards: Wet Foot, Dry Foot, Low Foot, High Foot: Learn About Opposites and Differences. "It's sort of like Dr. Seuss," he explained to Colon. Struck by the clarity of the explanation, Colon led with it in his article published the next morning. "Wet foot or dry foot. That's the short version of United States policy when it comes to Cuban refugees. If they're caught in the water, they're sent back to Cuba. If they touch ground, they get to stay." This simple characterization of a rather unintuitive policy was an instant hit, picked up by national media and remaining today the shorthand most often used to describe this current compromise in the long history of U.S.-Cuba immigration policy.
One criticism of the policy is the inconsistency of its treatment of Cubans with the treatment of those from other countries, particularly Haiti, who do not get the benefit of the "dry foot" part of the rule. Author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen suggested that a different opposite is at work: "'white foot, black foot' . . . if your foot is black, you're going back."