Barack Obama Ends "Wet Foot, Dry Foot" Cuban Immigration Policy, White House Says

Barack Obama meets with Cuban leader Raúl Castro in Havana in 2016.
Barack Obama meets with Cuban leader Raúl Castro in Havana in 2016.
Pete Souza / Wikimedia Commons
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Barack Obama will be the U.S. president for eight more days. But he's decided something that will have lasting ramifications for Miami and South Florida: the end of the long-standing and controversial "wet foot, dry foot" Cuban immigration policy, which granted residency to Cuban immigrants who entered the United States without visas, according to a statement from the White House. The rule change was first reported by the the Associated Press.

"Today, the United States is taking important steps forward to normalize relations with Cuba and to bring greater consistency to our immigration policy," President Obama said in a news release. "The Department of Homeland Security is ending the so-called wet-foot/dry foot policy, which was put in place more than 20 years ago and was designed for a different era."

Effective immediately, Cuban nationals "will be subject to removal, consistent with U.S. law and enforcement priorities," the president said. Cuban migrants who have already begun the process of applying for legal residency through the program will be allowed to continue.

Obama also said the Castro government has agreed to accept deported Cubans "just as it has been accepting the return of migrants interdicted at sea."

"Wet foot, dry foot" was first implemented in 1995, after then-President Bill Clinton announced the U.S. Coast Guard would deport migrants caught floating in the waters between Cuba and the States but would accept any refugees who made it onto U.S. soil. If a Cuban migrant reached American land, he or she would then be able to apply for an expedited green card.

The White House is also ending the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which encouraged Cuban doctors and nurses to defect to the U.S.

The "wet foot, dry foot" policy came after a wave of 35,000 migrants fled Cuba in 1994 — until "wet foot, dry foot," the U.S. Coast Guard accepted any migrants caught at sea. At the time, the U.S. said it didn't want to send migrants back to Fidel Castro's communist nation, and Castro himself typically refused to accept migrants who fled.

According to the AP, the Obama administration had spent months trying to persuade Cuban officials to take back migrants who'd fled for the States.

The law sparked a significant amount of criticism over the years: When it was enacted, Cuba and the United States had no formal diplomatic relations. But over the years, the Cuban government has relaxed punishments for some crimes, and Cuban "refugees" in South Florida have increasingly traveled back and forth between the two nations without fear of imprisonment or worse.

As relations between the two countries have improved, critics of the law have said it no longer makes sense to give Cubans immigrants an advantage over those from other nations. Critics have also argued the policy encouraged the smuggling of Cuban migrants into the country.

A 2015 South Florida Sun-Sentinel editorial called for an end to "wet foot, dry foot," characterizing the policy as a needless holdout from the Cold War. That same year, the Miami Herald editorial board also called for an end to the law. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, called the law "no longer justified" in 2016.

As relations have thawed, Cubans have increasingly fled to South Florida and other parts of the United States over concerns that "wet foot, dry foot" would likely come to an end. Over the years, thousands of Cuban migrants have landed on Florida's beaches, sometimes to the cheers of locals. According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 118,000 Cuban immigrants have arrived at U.S. ports since 2012.

The move is one of the rare decisions that Obama and President-elect Donald Trump will likely agree on: Obama is making the rule changes through an executive order, which Trump could theoretically overturn with the stroke of a pen. In the past, however, Trump has called the policy "unfair" to immigrants from countries other than Cuba.

With this step, Obama will likely be remembered as one of the most consequential presidents when it comes to immigration in U.S. history: According to ABC News, Obama has deported more people than any other president.

"The United States, a land of immigrants, has been enriched by the contributions of Cuban-Americans for more than a century," the president said today. "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."

This is a breaking story. This post will be updated.

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