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For Cubans who flee to America in Trump era, freedom may be in peril

Peter Klein is executive director of the Global Reporting Centre and a professor at the University of British Columbia.

Back in the early 1990s, I flew in a small Cessna airplane over the stretch of sea between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, with a group called Brother to the Rescue. They were looking for "balseros," Cuban dissidents making the treacherous journey to the United States on rickety rafts, a trip that had claimed the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people attempting the passage. The absurdity of this policy struck me – the U.S. would grant Cubans asylum, but only if they attempted a death-defying challenge.

In all the years the U.S. kept its hardline Cold War-era policy toward Cuba, Canada maintained friendly relations with the island, fostering economic ties and tourism. Cuba certainly deserves its reputation as a dictatorship with a poor human rights record. However, since Canada, like many countries, maintains relations with a number of totalitarian regimes, singling out Cuba would have seemed arbitrary.

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But Canadian politicians have the luxury of not having to worry about voters in Florida. Cuban-Americans make up a powerful voting block in a state that has voted for the successful presidential candidate in all but two elections since 1928, and American politicians have been loath to risk their political futures by endorsing policies that offend these voters.

Read more: Following the Midwest Passage: Asylum seekers take a cold journey to Manitoba via Trump's America

Explainer: Asylum seekers' cold crossings to Canada: A guide to the saga so far

Margaret Wente: America's spectacular immigration mess

In the last few days of the Obama administration, the U.S. lifted the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, which provided automatic asylum to any Cuban who made it to the shores of the U.S. No longer can Cubans fleeing the island start the path toward American citizenship just by touching home base on the shores of Florida. The move was meant to make it harder for the next president, Donald Trump, to undo one of the signature achievements of the Obama administration – normalizing relations with the Castro regime.

While older Cuban-Americans have been critical of the Obama administration making nice with Cuba, second- and third-generation Cubans in the U.S. have mixed feelings. Many would like to visit the island of their parents and grandparents, which until recently they could not do. Some also see economic opportunities on the largest island in the Caribbean. And others just see it as time to put the Cold War in the past where it belongs and foster new ties.

Mr. Trump is in a bind when it comes to dealing with the new Cuban asylum policy. On the one hand, he has threatened to reverse the thaw in relations, a move that would be consistent with the most conservative wing of his Republican Party. On the other hand, he has vowed to tighten immigration, as he did with the recent attempt to restrict entry to the U.S. of immigrants from specific countries and with sweeps of undocumented immigrants.

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One of Mr. Trump's obsessions seems to be the economic immigration of Spanish-speakers coming across the country's southern border. A significant portion of Cubans who had been taking advantage of the asylum policy in recent years are thought to be economic migrants, not unlike the Mexicans who will soon be blocked by the wall Mr. Trump claims he will build with Mexican funds.

Building a wall across the ocean is less practical – but the dangerous, fast-moving Gulf Stream between Cuba and southern Florida should be enough to deter most Cubans from trying to make the journey any more, given the new policy. Today, if Cubans make it to the U.S., they will be treated like any other illegal immigrants. What that policy under the new Trump administration will mean is anyone's guess.

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