When the U.S. decided on January 12 to end immediately the “dry foot/wet foot” immigration policy, as discussed in a prior post, two groups of Cubans faced immediate consequences.
First, many Cubans are stranded in Mexico or Central America unable to be allowed into the U.S. without a visa. Now many of them are waiting in place on the hope that Donald Trump after his January 20 inauguration will reverse the January 12 cancellation of that policy or make an exception for those in limbo.
Alternatively if any of them are fleeing “persecution” in Cuba, they first must satisfy a “credible fear” test at the U.S. border and then subsequently apply for asylum in the U.S. They, however, will generally be held in immigration detention for potentially months and success is far from guaranteed. It can take years for asylum to be granted given the crushing caseloads for U.S. asylum officers and immigration judges.
Second, also affected is a group of Cubans known as Marielitos who are in the U.S., and whose situation requires a historical explanation.
From April through October 1980, pursuant to Fidel Castro’s decision, nearly 125,000 Cubans were allowed to leave the island by boat from the port of Mariel on the north coast of the island west of Havana. Most were law-abiding, but some had just been released, by Fidel’s orders, from Cuban prisons and mental institutions. Within a few years after their arrival in the U.S. almost 3,000 of the “Marielitos” were in U.S. prisons after convictions for committing new and serious crimes in the U.S.
The Cuban government in 1984 agreed to take back 2,746 of these criminal Marielitos. But the U.S. deportations were slow and in some years did not take place at all. At one point, Marielitos who had been awaiting deportation for years rioted in several cities.
Now nearly 250 of this group of 2,746 have died, and, by June of last year, 478 of the original 2,746 remained in the U.S., but some of this smaller group are elderly or very ill, and the U.S. government has lost interest in deporting some of them.
The January 12, 2017, agreement between the U.S. and Cuba allows the U.S. to deport or remove up to 500 of the 2,746 Marielitos and send them back to Cuba, which agreed to accept them. Moreover, Cuba has agreed to accept other Marielitos who have been convicted of crimes in the U.S. as part of this group of 500, but were not part of the original group of 2,746.
I have a personal connection to one of the Marielitos. Before I retired from practicing law in June 2001, I was appointed by Minnesota’s federal court to represent, pro bono, one of them who was in immigration detention at the federal government’s medical facility in Rochester, Minnesota (the site of the famous Mayo Clinic). He had been convicted of a serious crime in Rhode Island, as I recall, and after completion of his criminal incarceration, the U.S. put him in immigration detention for deportation or removal to Cuba, but Cuba would not accept him back. Although he was not an attorney, he had filed, pro se, a habeas corpus petition with Minnesota’s federal court, and my task, as his pro bono attorney, was to analyze and submit a legal brief in support of that petition. I did so.
Before the government submitted a response to my legal brief and before the court had to make a decision on the petition, the U.S. government decided to permit my client’s release from immigration detention. At the Rochester medical facility, he was suffering from a terminal disease, and I believed the government’s decision for his release was not based on the quality of my legal arguments, but on its desire to reduce its costs of keeping him in that facility.
Not long after my “successful” representation of this Marielito and his release from the Rochester facility, my legal argument was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Zadvydas v. Davis, 533 U.S. 678 (2001), holding that the Constitution did not permit the U.S. to detain indefinitely immigrants under order of deportation whom no other country will accept. To justify detention of immigrants for a period longer than six months, the government was required to show removal in the foreseeable future or special circumstances.
Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, 7-2, in Clark v. Martinez, 543 U.S. 371 (2005), that the Zadvydas decision applied to Marielitos, whose return Cuba would not permit.
 Assoc. Press, Cuban Migrants Steps From US Border Hope for Trump Solution, N.Y. times (Jan. 14, 2017); Assoc. Press, US Policy Change on Cuban Migrants Leaves Many Stranded, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2017).
 Robles, ‘Marielitos’ Face Long-Delayed Reckoning: Expulsion to Cuba, N.Y. times (Jan. 14, 2017); Mariel boatlift, Wikipedia; Greenhouse, Supreme Court Rejects Mariel Cubans Detention, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2005); Zadvydas v. Davis, Wikipedia; Zadvydas v. Davis, 533 U.S. 678 (2001); Clark v. Martinez, Wikipedia; Clark v. Martinez, 543 U.S. 371 (2005).