Obama ends controversial policy that allowed Cubans to enter U.S.
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Source: Policy allowing Cuban migrants to enter U.S. without visas to
end, official says | Miami Herald -