Obama Ends Cubans’ Immigration Preference as Part of Opening

  • U.S. move eliminates decades-old ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy
  • Cubans already in U.S. will retain their legal residency

President Barack Obama ended a decades-old policy of granting residency to Cubans who enter the U.S. without a visa, a final step in the outgoing president’s move to reverse the Cold-War isolation of the Caribbean nation.

Obama’s order now places President-elect Donald Trump, who campaigned as an opponent both of current immigration flows and of normalizing relations with Cuba, in the position of either accepting another opening to Cuba or having one of his early actions in office be making it easier for immigrants to come into the country.

Effective immediately, the U.S. will remove Cuban nationals who enter the U.S. without the proper documentation and don’t qualify for humanitarian relief, Obama said Thursday in a statement. Obama said the prior policy "was designed for a different era."

"By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries," Obama said in the statement. "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 "wet foot, dry foot" policy, in place for more than two decades, made it easier for Cubans compared to any other nationality to gain U.S. residency by allowing them to stay in the country if they reached land. Cubans weren’t entitled to stay in the U.S. if they were intercepted at sea.

The policy change won’t effect Cubans who arrived prior to the announcement Thursday, said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who briefed reporters. Those Cubans will maintain their legal U.S. residency.

Dramatic Scenes

The policy resulted in dramatic scenes, frequently in South Florida or the Florida Keys, of Cubans on barely-floating rafts or weather-battered boats, abandoning their crafts and swimming toward shore with the knowledge that setting foot on the beach meant they could likely stay in the U.S.

But it also engendered frustration among immigrants from other countries, particularly in Latin America, who resented the preference Cubans got from U.S. authorities.

As the Obama administration boosted ties with Havana starting in late 2014, many in the Cuban and Cuban-American community sensed that the wet foot-dry foot policy was nearing an end. The detente between the nations prompted an increase in U.S. Coast Guard interdictions of Cubans at sea. In fiscal year 2016, 7,411 Cubans attempted to illegally migrate via the sea compared to 4,473 in fiscal year 2015, according to Coast Guard data.

The Cuban government in a statement said the decision was “an important step in the progress of bilateral relations” and one it had been requesting since 2002. The policy was “a blatant violation of the letter and spirit of the migratory agreements” that encouraged illegal migration, the statement said.

“This policy resulted in a differential treatment that created serious problems for the national security of both countries and for Cuban citizens, who were exposed to human trafficking,” said Director of U.S. Policy at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs Josefina Vidal, according to state-run media.

Secret Preparations

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the Obama administration kept preparations for the order ending the policy secret to prevent a further surge in migration by Cubans who might attempt to beat the change in rules.

"The Obama Administration has taken a positive step toward a more sensible Cuban immigration policy, one that ends preferential treatment for Cubans compared with others who arrive without visas," said Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America in a statement.

The decision has the potential to alter the character of South Florida, where Cubans regularly arrive by air and sea. For decades, the area around Miami has been defined in part by the Cuban exile community, its language, music and food. Shortly after the decision, the local NBC affiliate reported mixed reactions from the crowd at Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana.

More than 110,000 Cubans have entered the U.S. over the last three fiscal years, according to a Pew Research Center report.

— With assistance by Ezra Fieser, Bill Faries, and Jonathan Levin

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