President Donald Trump’s executive order banning entry of people from seven countries prompted a wave of protests from immigration activists and Democrats in South Florida.
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican whose district includes parts of Miami-Dade, defended Trump’s ban by comparing it with an action President Barack Obama took on Cuban refugees in his final days in office.
"I am struck by the double standard and hypocrisy of those who are offended by this executive order, but who failed to challenge President Obama when he took similar action against Cuban refugees; especially since President Obama’s action was meant to appease the Castro regime and not for national security reasons," Diaz-Balart wrote in a statement to the press Jan. 30.
Obama’s rule change was about the "wet foot dry foot policy," which Diaz-Balart criticized at the time as a "concession to the Castro regime."
Was Diaz-Balart accurate when he said Trump’s action was similar to Obama’s?
In a word, no. Trump’s order, which singled out immigrants from seven countries and refugees from everywhere, was far more broad than Obama’s administrative rule change to put Cubans on more equal footing with arrivals from other countries.
Trump’s order and Obama’s rule change
Trump’s Jan. 27 order states: "I hereby suspend entry into the United States, as immigrants and nonimmigrants, of such persons for 90 days from the date of this order."
Administration officials said that the order applied to people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen -- countries identified by the Obama administration as terrorist hotbeds.
"In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles," Trump’s order stated.
Trump also put processing of all refugees -- which would include Cubans -- on hold for three months and suspended the vetting of Syrian refugees indefinitely, "until such time as I have determined that sufficient changes have been made to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest."
Obama’s rule change, which came through a Department of Homeland Security regulation, applied to one group of people: Cubans. Obama’s Jan. 12 announcement ended the so-called "wet foot-dry foot" policy that had allowed Cubans without visas who reached U.S. shores (typically Florida) to gain automatic entry to the United States to ask for political asylum.
Under the policy, those caught at sea, however, were sent back to Cuba. The policy was started in 1995 under President Bill Clinton in an effort to end the rafter crisis and had a major impact in shaping immigrant-rich Miami-Dade County. Obama also eliminated the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program that allowed doctors to apply for parole at a U.S. embassy or consulate.
The "wet foot-dry foot" policy, along with the Cuban Adjustment Act -- which remains on the books -- permitted those who reached dry land in the United States to get permanent residency and green cards after living in the U.S. for a year and a day.
"With this change, we will continue to welcome Cubans as we welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our laws," Obama said. The rule change, announced in the final days of his presidency, followed his announcement in 2014 to normalize relations with Cuba.
Obama’s rule change did not cut off immigration from Cuba. A Department of Homeland Security official told the Miami Herald that an immigration lottery allowed at least 20,000 Cubans to emigrate to the United States legally each year would remain in effect. Also a program that allows legal residents in the United States to apply for Cuban relatives to join them was expected to continue.
We interviewed several experts on immigration who said Diaz-Balart’s comparison was misleading because of the different scope of the directives. While Obama eliminated special treatment for Cubans, Trump’s order singled out specific nationalities of immigrants for additional restrictions.
"President Obama decided that applying the same generally applicable standards for all nationalities should apply to Cuban noncitizens," said University of California Davis School of Law immigration law professor Kevin Johnson. "In contrast, President Trump singled out citizens of seven nations for special treatment more harsh than that generally applicable to all other noncitizens."
University of Miami immigration law professor Kunal Parker also said that Diaz-Balart’s comparison is invalid.
"President Trump's order singles out certain countries for special treatment and specifically bans Syrian refugees from entering the United States," he said. "Nationals of the seven targeted countries are henceforth going to be treated differently from immigrants and nonimmigrants from all other countries."
Ted Henken, a Latin American studies professor at Baruch College, said that Trump’s order reintroduces preferential treatment since it established a loophole for religious minorities.
Trump’s order states that when refugee admissions resume, that the federal government will "prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality." (The order doesn’t specifically identify religions but the clause about religious minorities has been interpreted to refer to Christians who are minorities in Muslim countries.)
Obama’s rule change was about how to process people arriving from one country -- Cuba -- and wasn’t related to vetting them for security threats. Trump’s order specifically states that it is an order "protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States."
Diaz-Balart’s spokeswoman Katrina Valdes told PolitiFact Florida in an email that the point of his statement was not to compare Trump’s order and Obama’s rule change "but to highlight the hypocrisy" of those who disagreed with Trump’s order but supported Obama’s rule change.
"President Obama, without warning, introduced chaos into the system for Cuban refugees," he said in a statement to PolitiFact Florida. "Where was the outrage as they were waiting at the border, having traveled for miles in horrible conditions, to have the door slammed in their faces? Obama ended the special parole for the Cuban Adjustment Act and eradicated the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program. He didn't just more strongly vet them, and he didn't put on the brakes for the programs for three months. He ended them."
Diaz-Balart said that Obama "took similar action against Cuban refugees" as Trump did in his executive order.
Experts said that Diaz-Balart is comparing two very different actions. Obama’s rule change ended "wet foot-dry foot" -- a policy that provided special treatment to Cubans who arrived on U.S. shores without a visa. Obama didn’t entirely halt immigration for Cubans; his rule change meant that they had to apply just like people from other countries.
Trump’s order is far more broad and temporarily suspended entry for people from seven specific countries, as well as refugees from everywhere.
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