AP: “Obama ends visa-free path for Cubans who make it to US soil”

by Joseph McKeown

President Barack Obama announced last Thursday that he is ending a longstanding US immigration policy allowing Cubans who arrive in the US to stay and become legal residents. The change for this policy, commonly referred to as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, comes after months of negotiations and is an attempt to “normalize relations” with Cuba. It is contingent upon Cuba agreeing to take back certain Cuban nationals in the US who have been ordered removed. 

In a statement, President Obama called the "wet foot, dry foot" policy outdated. “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 US law and enforcement priorities,” he said. “By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.” 

Since President Obama is using an administrative rule change to end the policy, President-Elect Trump could undo the change after the inauguration this week; however, ending a US policy that has allowed hundreds of thousands of people to enter the US without documentation would arguably seem to align with Trump’s comments on enacting tough immigration policies.

The Cuban government issued a statement calling the agreed upon policy change “an important step in the advance of bilateral relations” that will guarantee “regular, safe and orderly migration.” The government said the policy encouraged illegal travel in unseaworthy vessels, homemade rafts, and inner tubes.

The "wet foot, dry foot" policy was created by President Bill Clinton in 1995 to revise a more liberal immigration policy that allowed Cubans captured at sea to enter the US and become legal residents in a year. This change to the “wet foot, dry foot” policy comes after President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro established full diplomatic ties and opened embassies in their respective capitals in 2015. In anticipation of this policy change, there has been an increase in Cuban immigration, particularly across the US-Mexico border. According to statistics published by the Department of Homeland Security, since October 2012 more than 118,000 Cubans have entered at ports of entry along the border, including more than 48,000 people who arrived between October 2015 and November 2016.

As part of the changes, the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, started by President George W. Bush in 2006, is also being rescinded. The measure permitted Cuban doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals to seek parole in the US while on assignments abroad, but the president noted these doctors can still apply for asylum at US embassies around the world. "By providing preferential treatment to Cuban medical personnel, the medical parole program…risks harming the Cuban people," Obama said in his statement.

Reactions to the change in policy are varied. "People who can't leave, they could create internal problems for the regime," Jorge Gutierrez, an eighty-year-old veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion, tells the AP. He adds: "From the humanitarian point of view, it's taking away the possibility of a better future from the people who are struggling in Cuba." Representative Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who immigrated to the US from Cuba as a child, says that eliminating the medical parole program is a "foolhardy concession to a regime that sends its doctors to foreign nations in a modern-day indentured servitude." 

Even with this policy change, Cubans are still covered by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which grants them permanent residency after they have been in the US for one year. Up until the policy change last week, Cuban nationals who made it to the US were given temporary “parole” status for the one year, but this will no longer be granted. While the change in policy is effective immediately, those already in the US and being processed under both the "wet foot, dry foot" policy and the medical parole program will be able to continue the process toward obtaining legal status. Officials also say the change in policy does not affect the lottery that allows 20,000 Cubans to come to the US each year.