Barack Obama has ended a longstanding US policy that allowed Cuban nationals who reached the US to be eligible automatically for residency, putting a final stamp on his foreign policy legacy.
“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 US law and enforcement priorities,” the White House said in a statement on Thursday. “By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.”
Since 1996 the US has allowed Cuban nationals reaching the US to stay and qualify for residency, while turning away those detained at sea before making it to dry land.
The so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy has long angered the Cuban government, which says the policy spurs illegal migration, and encourages Cubans to undertake dangerous voyages to reach the US.
While some observers expected that the US would end the wet-foot, dry-foot policy when the White House renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba in July 2015, the Obama administration had given no indication before Thursday’s announcement that it would be reversed.
The White House said the new policy would be effective immediately and implemented by the Department of Homeland Security. The Cuban government, it said, had agreed to take back all Cuban nationals detained reaching or trying to reach US soil from Thursday.
Cubans fearing political persecution will still be able to apply for political asylum, while other Cuban nationals seeking to emigrate to the US will go through the traditional immigration channels.
Separately, the White House said it would also be ending the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which allowed Cuban medical personnel, including nurses, to seek parole in the US while on foreign business trips.
By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries
Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security, said in a statement that the end of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program and wet-foot, dry-foot policy were an important step in “the ongoing normalisation of relations between the governments of the United States and Cuba”, and reflected a broader commitment by the US to have an immigration policy “in which we treat people from different countries consistently”.
The White House’s decision to end the policy comes as Mr Obama attempts to safeguard the US detente with Cuba, a key foreign policy decision of his presidency.
President-elect Donald Trump has said he will reverse the detente unless Havana makes certain concessions to the US, although he has not specified what those concessions would be.
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