CUBA STANDARD — Closing a gap through which a rising number of Cubans have been entering the United States, and taking a controversy off the shoulders of his successor, outgoing President Barack Obama on Jan. 12 ended the long-standing “wet foot, dry foot” policy, effective immediately.
The old policy, established under Bill Clinton in 1995, granted all Cubans a path to legal residence and eventual citizenship, if they succeeded to set foot on U.S. soil. Cubans caught at sea were returned to the island.
The Cuban government has long attacked the policy, saying it enticed Cubans to risk their lives and caused brain drain. However, it also served as a political pressure valve for Cubans anxious to improve their lot.
Both governments issued a joint declaration the same day. A statement from the Cuban foreign ministry called the move “an important step in advancing bilateral relations.”
The new immigration policy, which treats Cubans like migrants from all other nations in the region, is based on a bilateral agreement.
“For this to work, the Cubans had to agree to take people back,” Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in a conference call together with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Cuba, according to U.S. officials, agreed to take back all citizens who left within the past four years.
A senior U.S. official cited by Associated Press said the Cuban government didn’t give any assurances about treatment of those sent back, but that political asylum remains an option for Cubans.
Justifying the end of the policy, Rhodes cited a rise of arrivals without papers in 2016, when 54,000 Cuban migrants — many in anticipation of a policy change in Washington — flocked to the United States. In 2014, some 40,000 Cubans came.
“This was the appropriate step at the appropriate time,” Rhodes said, asked why the administration moved now, in the last week of Barack Obama’s presidency. He explained that the U.S. and Cuban governments had been working “sequentially,” arriving at this particular issue only recently, after months of negotiations.
The Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to become permanent residents a year after arriving in the United States with a visa, remains intact. The United States continues its promise to issue at least 20,000 visas per year to Cubans.
Pro-normalization advocates welcomed Obama’s move.
“Ending ‘wet foot, dry foot’ is a historic decision and a good one,” said Vicky Huddleston, a former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, in a Facebook post. “There will be consequences — good and bad.”
While the president-elect has announced he would submit Obama’s Cuba policy to a “bottom-up review” and roll back executive orders, this administrative rule change may remain standing after Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Trump has said he wants a repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which dates back to the Lyndon Johnson administration. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times on Nov. 11, Trump said that allowing Cuban immigrants legal access to the United States under the Adjustment Act is wrong.
The Obama administration also revoked a policy that facilitated the defection of Cuban medical personnel working abroad. The controversial Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program was established in 2006 under President George W. Bush.