The longest 90 miles

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This past Sunday was not the first time that José Fernández boarded a boat near the coast of Florida. He had done it four times before — all in an attempt to make it from his home country of Cuba to the United States where, once he had set foot on American soil, he would be able to pursue a path to American citizenship. But those times all had one thing in common: He lived through them.

Fernández, a star pitcher on the Miami Marlins, died tragically this past weekend in a boating accident off the coast of South Florida. It is reported that he died because of trauma — most likely from the vehicle moving too fast and running into a jetty. Fernández was 24 and had a remarkable run in the MLB, being awarded Rookie of the Year in 2013 and cultivating a prosperous career in the years after. He was beloved by Marlins fans and had a special place in many people’s hearts, particularly those from Cuba.

Cuba’s history with the U.S. is a long and tumultuous one. In 1902, it became independent but was kept under U.S. security and diplomatic influence. In 1960, a year after Fidel Castro took over leadership of Cuba, the U.S. cut off diplomatic relations with the nation and imposed a trade embargo. Since then, the relationship has been tense and conflict-ridden.

In 1995, due to a revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, the U.S. adopted the “wet-foot dry-foot” policy for Cuban migrants. This act essentially means that any Cuban migrant who survives the perilous 90-mile journey by sea to America and steps foot on the shore can qualify for legal permanent resident status after one year. Countless Cubans have died attempting to make the trip and thousands are caught and sent back to Cuba where they often face jail time.

Those who make it to shore, like Fernández, and gain U.S. citizenship in exchange for giving up their Cuban allegiance are considered Cuban defectors. There have been countless Cuban defectors who have played in the MLB, many of whom have had thriving baseball careers: Yoenis Céspedes, José Contreras and José Abreu just to name a few.

Much of the time, though, people don’t know what these players went through to make it to the U.S. Many of them traveled by sea when they were children on rickety boats, dodging U.S. coast guard ships in order to better their lives. Some people applaud these stories as brave and heroic but neglect to acknowledge the ridiculous nature of the U.S. immigration policy that forces thousands to risk their lives in order to play a game of real-life Frogger on the open seas.

The policy is exceedingly archaic: While people from other nations have a formal application system, Cubans are left to physically battle their way through water and coast guard ships to earn their citizenship. And while this path may seem easier, it is in fact far more dangerous and uncertain.

Cubans, such as Fernández and many others in the U.S. and in the MLB, shouldn’t have to risk their lives to flee an oppressive Cuba. There should be more standardized immigration laws that aid those facing persecution or looking for asylum, not ones that leave part of the process up to the mood of the sea.

And what’s more is that many Americans’ view on immigration is antithetical to their sporting allegiances — it is wholly hypocritical for us as a nation to condemn immigrants for attempting to come to the U.S. while simultaneously lauding and commending sports figures from different nations when they contribute to our teams. This year, about a quarter of players in the MLB were born outside the U.S. — and that’s just major league baseball. Many of them excel in the league and earn immense support from fans — those who know their history of immigration along with those who don’t. In a way, we use these athletes for their athletic prowess and claim them as our own when in reality many would not have wanted them to enter the country in the first place.

We cannot mythologize the stories of Cubans who succeed in making the treacherous trip across those 90 miles to the United States while punishing those who get caught. Here’s the bigger problem: If José Fernández had not been an immensely talented baseball player, some people walking along the streets of Miami might have disparaged him for being an immigrant.

Sophie Goethals writes the column about social issues in the world of sports and their potential ramifications. Contact her at [email protected]