Obama ends visa-free path for Cuban migrants
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
President Barack Obama, who visited Havana in March, ended a policy letting Cubans reaching U.S. soil stay here.