Thousands of undocumented Cubans each year are welcomed as soon as they set foot on U.S. soil. The special preference afforded them stems almost wholly from the United States’ Cold War–era fear of communism. The “wet foot, dry foot” policy, grounded in the 1965 Cuban Adjustment Act, allows Cubans to be protected (fed, registered, given work permits and health care) once they enter the United States; they are not even required to prove eligibility for asylum. They do not have to belong to a specific, persecuted social group or show that their lives are in danger. They need only to set one foot on U.S. territory. A year later, they can become permanent legal residents. While the U.S. fear of communism may have diminished, the presence of a large Cuban-American voting bloc keeps this special preference in place.
In addition to these arrivals at the U.S. border, thousands of Cubans are granted refugee status each year after applying from Cuba. In 2013 the U.S. admitted 26,407 Cubans as refugees or asylees. That is nearly one-fourth of the refugee and asylum seeker total admitted that year.
The contrast with Central America is telling. In the 1980s hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran refugees fleeing U.S.-supported repressive right-wing regimes poured into the U.S., crossing the border illegally. Guatemalans also arrived, fleeing government-sponsored genocide that killed more than 150,000 people from 1960 to 1980. During the 1980s, the U.S. refused most applications for asylum from El Salvador and Guatemala.
Unlike the 1980s, today children are fleeing not right-wing death squads but violent gangs and drug traffickers. But like the ’80s-era refugees, they are unprotected by their governments.