WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday he is immediately ending the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that let any Cuban who steps foot on U.S. soil remain in the United States without a visa.
Obama said in a statement that the 20-year-old 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,” he said. “We will continue to welcome Cubans as we welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our laws.”
Obama called it an important step in normalizing relations with Cuba.
Medical program ending, too
The president said Cuba has agreed to take back Cuban migrants who arrive in the U.S. without permission, the same way it has been accepting migrants whom the U.S. Coast Guard picks up at sea.
Obama said the Department of Homeland Security also is ending the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which allowed Cuban doctors and medical professionals working in a third-world country to enter the U.S.
Obama said they may now apply for asylum at U.S. embassies the same way any foreign national would.
Former President Bill Clinton approved the “wet foot, dry foot” policy in 1995, when Cubans who were returned home after trying to escape were subjected to harsh treatment and more repression.
Officials said the changes would not affect a lottery that allows 20,000 Cubans to come to the U.S. legally each year.
Cuba had long complained that the policy encouraged Cubans to put their lives at risk trying to get to the U.S. across the sometimes dangerous Straits of Florida.
Those in pipeline may continue
People in the United States and in the pipeline under both “wet foot, dry foot’’ and the medical parole program will be able to continue the process toward getting legal status.
The Cuban government praised the move. In a statement read on state television, it called the signing of the agreement “an important step in advancing relations’’ between the U.S. and Cuba that “aims to guarantee normal, safe and ordered migration.’’
Obama is using an administrative rule change to end the policy. President-elect Donald Trump could undo that rule after becoming president next week. He has criticized Obama’s moves to improve relations with Cuba. But ending a policy that has allowed hundreds of thousands of people to come to the United States without a visa also aligns with Trump’s commitment to tough immigration policies.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, noted an uptick in Cuban migration, particularly across the U.S.-Mexico border, an increase many have attributed to an expectation among Cubans that the Obama administration would soon move to end their special immigration status.
Since October 2012, more than 118,000 Cubans have presented themselves at ports of entry along the border, according to statistics published by the Homeland Security Department, including more than 48,000 people who arrived between October 2015 and November 2016.
Although the trade embargo against Cuba continues, hostilities between the Washington and Havana have eased substantially. The U.S. and Cuba restored full diplomatic ties in 2015, 54 years after cutting relations following Fidel Castro’s communist takeover.
Geoff Thale, head of the Washington Office on Latin America, praised Obama’s decision Thursday, saying the policy had given Cubans an advantage over other Latin Americans who are trying to escape violence and poverty in Central America.
Thale calls the new rules a “positive step toward a more sensible Cuban immigration policy.”
But New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat whose parents were Cuban immigrants, said Thursday’s announcement “will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people.”
Menendez complained that Obama did not consult with Congress and said the “ill-conceived” changes in the country’s Cuban policy only reward the regime with an economic lifeline.
Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who emigrated from Cuba as a child, decried the elimination of the medical parole programs, calling it a “foolhardy concession to a regime that sends its doctors to foreign nations in a modern-day indentured servitude.’’
A decades-old U.S. economic embargo remains in place, as does the Cuban Adjustment Act, which lets Cubans become permanent residents a year after legally arriving in the U.S.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.