U.S. and Cuba finalize end to immigration deal
WASHINGTON >> President Barack Obama announced Thursday he is ending a long-standing immigration policy that allows any Cuban who makes it to U.S. soil to stay and become a legal resident.
The repeal of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy is effective immediately. The decision follows months of negotiations focused in part on getting Cuba to agree to take back people who had arrived in the U.S. “Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with U.S. law and enforcement priorities,” Obama said in a statement. “By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries. The Cuban government has agreed to accept the return of Cuban nationals who have been ordered removed, just as it has been accepting the return of migrants interdicted at sea.”
The Cuban government praised the move. In a statement read on state television, it called the signing of the agreement “an important step in advancing relations” between the U.S. and Cuba that “aims to guarantee normal, safe and ordered migration.”
Obama is using an administrative rule change to end the policy. Donald Trump could undo that rule after becoming president next week. He has criticized Obama’s moves to improve relations with Cuba. But ending a policy that has allowed hundreds of thousands of people to come to the United States without a visa also aligns with Trump’s commitment to tough immigration policies.
President Bill Clinton created “wet foot, dry foot” policy in 1995 as a revision of a more liberal immigration policy that allowed Cubans caught at sea to come to the United States and become legal residents in a year. The two governments have been negotiating an end to “wet foot, dry foot” for months and finalized an agreement Thursday. A decades-old U.S. economic embargo, though, remains in place, as does the Cuban Adjustment Act, which lets Cubans become permanent residents a year after legally arriving in the U.S. Under the terms of the agreement, Cuba has agreed to take back those turned away from the U.S., if the time between their departure from Cuba and the start of deportation hearings in the U.S. is four years or less. Officials said the time frame is required under a Cuban law enacted after Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act.
“For this to work, the Cubans had to agree to take people back,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Officials said the changes would not affect a lottery that allows 20,000 Cubans to come to the U.S. legally each year. But Rhodes cast the shift as a necessary step toward Cuba’s economic and political development. Obama said the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which was started by President George W. Bush in 2006, is also being rescinded. The measure allowed Cuban doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to seek parole in the U.S. while on assignments abroad. The president said those doctors can still apply for asylum at U.S. embassies around the world. Also Thursday, the Obama administration designated three new national monuments honoring civil rights history as it commemorates next week’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The monuments are the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument in Alabama, the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Ala., and the Reconstruction Era National Monument in South Carolina.
Obama also expanded the territory of the California Coastal National Monument, adding six sites and more than 6,000 acres to an area that includes islets, reefs and rock outcroppings spanning much of the state’s coastline.