Obama ends visa-free path for Cuban mi­grants

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - NATIONAL & WORLD -

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Barack Obama an­nounced Thurs­day that he is end­ing a long­stand­ing im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy that al­lows any Cuban who makes it to U.S. soil to stay and be­come a le­gal res­i­dent.

The re­peal of the “wet­foot, 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. Pres­i­den­t­elect Don­ald Trump could undo that rule af­ter tak­ing of­fice 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 could align with Trump’s stated com­mit­ment to tough im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies.

Then-Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton cre­ated the wet­foot, dry-foot pol­icy in 1995 as a re­vi­sion of a more lib­eral im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy that al­lowed Cubans caught at sea to come to this coun­try 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 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.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials called on Congress to re­peal the Cuban Ad­just­ment Act.

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.

“It’s im­por­tant that Cuba con­tinue to have a young, dy­namic pop­u­la­tion that are clearly serv­ing as agents of change,” he said.

Rhodes also cited an uptick in Cuban mi­gra­tion, par­tic­u­larly across the U.S.-Mex­i­can bor­der — an in­crease many have at­trib­uted to an ex­pec­ta­tion among Cubans that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion would soon move to end their spe­cial sta­tus.

Since Oc­to­ber 2012, more than 118,000 Cubans have pre­sented them­selves at ports of en­try along the bor­der, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics pub­lished by the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment, in­clud­ing more than 48,000 peo­ple who ar­rived be­tween Oc­to­ber 2015 and Novem­ber.

Re­la­tions be­tween the United States and Cuba were frozen for decades, but Obama and Cuban Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro es­tab­lished full ties and opened em­bassies in their cap­i­tals in 2015. Obama vis­ited Ha­vana in March. Of­fi­cials from both na­tions met Thurs­day in Wash­ing­ton to co­or­di­nate ef­forts to fight hu­man traf­fick­ing.

Obama said the Cuban Med­i­cal Pro­fes­sional Pa­role Pro­gram, started by Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush in 2006, is also be­ing re­scinded. It al­lowed Cuban doc­tors, nurses and other med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als to seek pa­role in the U.S. while on as­sign­ments abroad. Obama said those doc­tors can still ap­ply for asy­lum at U.S. em­bassies around the world.

“By pro­vid­ing pref­er­en­tial treat­ment to Cuban med­i­cal per­son­nel, the med­i­cal pa­role pro­gram ... risks harm­ing the Cuban peo­ple,” Obama said.

Peo­ple al­ready in the United States and in the pipe­line un­der both wet­foot, dry-foot and the med­i­cal pa­role pro­gram will be able to con­tinue seek­ing le­gal sta­tus.

Rep. Il­leana RosLe­hti­nen, R-Fla., who came from Cuba as a child, de­cried the end of the med­i­cal pa­role pro­gram, call­ing it a “fool­hardy con­ces­sion to a regime that sends its doc­tors to for­eign na­tions in a mod­ern-day in­den­tured servi­tude.”

By The As­so­ci­ated Press

2016, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, who vis­ited Ha­vana in March, ended a pol­icy let­ting Cubans reach­ing U.S. soil stay here.

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