The Obama administration on Thursday pulled the plug on a controversial policy for Cuban migrants — essentially turning the clock back on decades of preferential treatment for Cubans and making those who arrive without visas subject to deportation.
The change, which took effect immediately, brought to a halt the practice that gave Cubans who arrive at U.S. borders without visas automatic entry into the United States — even if they had been smuggled in by human traffickers. Cubans picked up at sea generally have been sent back unless they could establish a “well-founded fear” of political persecution if returned.
“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,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.
“Since I took office, we have put the Cuban-American community at the center of our policies,” Obama said. “With this change, we will continue to welcome Cubans as we welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our laws.”
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In a joint U.S.-Cuba communique, the countries also announced that the Cuban government had agreed to take back 2,746 Cubans who were deemed excludable from the United States after the 1980 Mariel boatlift as well as some others who emigrated during the same time period and committed crimes.
In recent years, record numbers of Cuban migrants have taken advantage of the special U.S. policy, known as “wet foot, dry foot,” which allows Cubans who reach U.S. territory to stay and ask for political asylum. In conjunction with the Cuban Adjustment Act, the policy has permitted those reaching U.S. territory to get permanent residency and green cards after they’ve been in the United States for a year and a day.
“Wet foot, dry foot has come to be understood as any Cuban who makes it to U.S. territory would be lawfully admitted,” said Robert Muse, a Washington immigration attorney. “Now this change puts Cubans into the same category as every other citizen of every other country on earth.”
After outlining the policy, the White House held a call with Cuban Americans who support the administration. They were told President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team was briefed, one person on the call told the Miami Herald.
Immigration analysts say a change in U.S. immigration policy toward Cuba had to be immediate to prevent a wave of Cubans trying to reach U.S. shores by sea, air or by crossing at the U.S. border with Mexico to beat a deadline.
Last fiscal year, more than 54,000 Cubans arrived at U.S. border points or via sea without visas, according to officials.
Those Cubans already in the migration pipeline that stretches from South America to Central America up to the Mexican border reacted with relief or dismay, depending on which side of the border they found themselves.
“We got in by a hair,” said Teresa Besada Pérez, who was resting at a house across the border from Mexico with other migrants Thursday before continuing on the final leg of their journey to Miami.
But Alexander Jiménez, a Cuban now in Ecuador who planned to make his way to the U.S.-Mexico border, was in shock. “I had everything ready to leave for the United States with my wife. I have many relatives making the journey. We can’t communicate with them and now they can’t continue on the route.”
“Now what do we do?” asked Yuniel Ramos, a Cuban migrant currently in Honduras with other Cubans who had hoped to reach the United States by land. “We are desperate, in the middle of the jungle,” he said..
Politicians were quick to react.
South Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said those in the pipeline are just trying to “escape the brutal oppression of the Castro regime.”
Cuba has complained repeatedly that the wet-foot, dry-foot policy has served as a magnet, encouraging Cubans to make dangerous sea passages and siphoning off Cuban professionals who want to improve their economic situation.
It was instituted by former President Bill Clinton in an effort to end the 1994 rafter crisis. Prior to that, Cubans picked up at sea were brought to the United States.
The Cuban government announced the policy change in a national broadcast Thursday evening, calling the end to wet foot, dry foot “an important step” in resolving illegal migration and bringing an end to “special treatment” for those fleeing illegally.
The White House also said it was ending the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program that gives preferential treatment to Cuban medical professionals who want to come to the United States.
“The United States and Cuba are working together to combat diseases that endanger the health and lives of our people. By providing preferential treatment to Cuban medical personnel, the medical parole program contradicts those efforts, and risks harming the Cuban people,” the president said.
South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen objected to the curtailment of the medical parole program, saying that it was “undermining the Castro regime by providing an outlet for Cuban doctors to seek freedom from forced labor which only benefits an oppressive regime.”
A Department of Homeland Security official said an immigration lottery that allows at least 20,000 Cubans to emigrate to the United States legally each year would remain in effect. The Cuban family reunification program, which allows legal residents in the U.S. to apply for relatives to join them, will also continue.
“This still doesn’t mean the end of separate legal treatment of Cubans, that is not going to completely go away,” said Kunal Parker, a University of Miami immigration law expert. What the policy change does mean is that Cubans will have to proceed through legal channels, or risk being repatriated to Cuba, he said.
Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, a Cuban exile, blasted Obama for giving Castro a parting gift: “This is just a going away present from Obama to [Cuba leader] Raúl Castro.”
Regalado doesn’t believe ending the policy will slow the flow of Cubans coming to the U.S. All it does, he says, is throw the process into question.
U.S. officials said the United States and Cuba had been negotiating the change with Cuba for several months. Cuba and the United States convened a meeting in Washington on Thursday, which will continue Friday, to discuss efforts to fight human trafficking.
“This policy is often discussed here as if it is purely unilateral,” said U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. “In order for this to work, the Cuban government had to agree to take people back. It was only in recent years, as the uptick in migration continued that they entered into those discussions with us.”
Dialogues on various topics of mutual interest have been underway with Cuba since Obama and Castro announced on Dec. 17, 2014 that the two countries would renew diplomatic relations and work toward normalization of their troubled relationship.
Miami Herald reporters David Smiley, Chabeli Herrera, Patricia Mazzei, and el Nuevo Herald reporters Alfonso Chardy, Mario J. Penton and Abel Fernández contributed to this report. McClatchy correspondent Franco Ordoñez reported from Laredo, Texas.
Today, the United States is taking important steps forward to normalize relations with Cuba and to bring greater consistency to our immigration policy. The Department of Homeland Security is ending the so-called “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy, which was put in place more than twenty years ago and was designed for a different era. 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. 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.
Today, the Department of Homeland Security is also ending the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program. The United States and Cuba are working together to combat diseases that endanger the health and lives of our people. By providing preferential treatment to Cuban medical personnel, the medical parole program contradicts those efforts, and risks harming the Cuban people. Cuban medical personnel will now be eligible to apply for asylum at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, consistent with the procedures for all foreign nationals.
The United States, a land of immigrants, has been enriched by the contributions of Cuban Americans for more than a century. Since I took office, we have put the Cuban-American community at the center of our policies. With this change we will continue to welcome Cubans as we welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our laws. During my Administration, we worked to improve the lives of the Cuban people — inside of Cuba — by providing them with greater access to resources, information and connectivity to the wider world. Sustaining that approach is the best way to ensure that Cubans can enjoy prosperity, pursue reforms, and determine their own destiny. As I said in Havana, the future of Cuba should be in the hands of the Cuban people.