President Obama Ends ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Policy for Cuban Immigrants

By Sameer Rao Jan 13, 2017

President Barack Obama announced the immediate end of the U.S. government’s long-standing "wet foot, dry foot" preferential policy for Cuban immigrants yesterday (January 12).

"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," Obama said in a statement issued by the White House. "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."

The Associated Press (AP) reports that Bill Clinton implemented the policy in 1995. It permitted any Cuban national who reached the U.S. to stay, while repatriating those caught in the roughly 90 miles of ocean between the countries. "Wet foot, dry foot" revised the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, a Cold War-era measure that granted any Cuban immigrant "admitted or paroled into the United States" legal residency within a year. U.S. policy towards Cuban immigrants fleeing Fidel Castro‘s regime contrasted sharply with immigration protocol for citizens of most other countries. 

Obama also declared an end to the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program. That program allowed Cuban health professionals conscripted by their government for studies or work outside Cuba to enter the U.S. without punishment. "The United States and Cuba are working together to combat diseases that endanger the health and lives of our people, said Obama. "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."

According to The Washington Post, the announcement followed months of negotiations between the U.S. and Cuban governments. The AP cited a Cuban government statement read on state television that called the change "an important step in advancing relations" between the two countries. 

The termination of these policies continues the Obama administration’s steps to normalize diplomatic ties between both countries. Cubans and Cuban Americans greeted the news with mixed reactions. 

"This was bound to happen at some point," a Havana resident told The AP. "It could impose a more normal dynamic on emigration, so that not so many people die at sea, but it could also take an escape valve away from the government, which was getting hard currency from the emigrants."

"From the humanitarian point of view, it’s taking away the possibility of a better future from the people who are struggling in Cuba," a Miami-based veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion said to The AP.

"This is just a going away present from Obama to [Cuban leader] Raúl Castro," said Miami’s Republican mayor Tomas Regalado to The Miami Herald, which reported that nearly 54,000 Cubans arrived at U.S. border points and via sea without visas in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016.

The AP reports that Obama terminated the policy through a currently unpublished executive order, which means it could be overturned by President-elect Donald Trump.