The Obama administration, in one of its final foreign policy initiatives, on Thursday ended the special status accorded migrants fleeing Cuba who, upon reaching this country, were automatically allowed to stay.
Cubans are still covered by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which grants them permanent residency — a green card — after they have been here for one year. Until now, they were given temporary “parole” status while waiting for that year to pass. That will no longer be granted, making the act moot for most by denying them entry on arrival.
Effective immediately, President Obama said in a statement, “Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally . . . will be subject to removal,” treating them “the same way we treat migrants from other countries.”
More than a million Cubans have come to this country, many of them in vast exoduses by sea, since the island’s 1959 revolution. More than 250,000 have been granted residency under the Obama administration under the law, which can only be repealed by Congress.
The new rule on parole applies to Cubans attempting to enter the United States without visas by sea or by land through Mexico or Canada.
It ends the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, adopted by the Clinton administration in 1996 at a time when illegal seaborne migrants were flooding across the Florida Straits. That policy differentiated between those reaching U.S. soil — who were allowed to stay — and those intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, who were returned to Cuba or sent to third countries.
The policy was agreed upon with the Cuban government, which issued a statement calling it “an important step in the advance of bilateral relations” that will guarantee “regular, safe and orderly migration.” The government has long complained about the special status for Cubans, particularly the “wet-foot, dry foot” policy, which it said encouraged illegal travel in unseaworthy vessels, homemade rafts and inner tubes.
As part of the accord announced in both capitals, Cuba will allow any citizen who has been out of the country for up to four years to return. Previously, anyone who had been gone for more than two years was legally said to have “emigrated.” The Cuban statement said efforts to “modernize” immigration policies would continue.
The White House described the changes as a logical extension of the normalization of relations with Cuba that began in December 2014, when Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced they would end more than a half-century of estrangement. Since then, U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations have been reestablished, and Obama has used his regulatory authorities to ease long-standing restrictions on commerce and trade, as well as travel by U.S. citizens to the island, under the continuing U.S. embargo.
The latest change comes as President-elect Donald Trump has indicated his unhappiness with increased Cuba ties and has threatened to reverse normalization. “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal,” Trump tweeted in late November, after the death of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, the current president’s brother.
If he chose to do so after taking office, Trump could order the Department of Homeland Security to reinstitute special treatment for Cuban migrants.
Lawmakers long opposed to the new relationship with Cuba expressed displeasure at the new policy. “Today’s announcement will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement.
“Congress was not consulted prior to this abrupt policy announcement with just nine days left in the administration,” Menendez said. “The Obama administration seeks to pursue engagement with the Castro regime at the cost of ignoring the present state of torture and oppression, and its systematic curtailment of freedom.”
Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said that plans for the change were kept quiet in large part to avoid a new flood of Cubans trying to enter — many of them trying to beat a deadline they feared was the inevitable next step in U.S.-Cuba rapprochment under the current administration.
The total number of Cubans admitted after reaching here without visas by land or sea was 4,890 in 2013, according to Customs and Border Protection. In 2016, the number was 53,416.
According to the Coast Guard, 1,885 people traveling by sea have either arrived here or been intercepted — and sent back — in fiscal 2017, which began Oct. 1.
Thousands of others have joined a growing stream of Central Americans who have made the arduous journey through Mexico, often after paying hefty sums to smugglers, to reach the U.S. border. While Cubans have been allowed to cross, others, largely from Guatemala and El Salvador, have been turned back.
“The aim here is to treat Cuban migrants in a manner consistent to migrants who come here from other countries . . . equalizing our immigration policies . . . as part of the overall normalization process with Cuba,” said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. “Our approach to Cubans arriving [at the border] tomorrow will be the same as those arriving from other countries.”
Rhodes said the change was also justified because, while many Cubans in the past left the island “for political purposes . . . I think increasingly over time the balance has shifted to those leaving for more traditional reasons,” such as “economic opportunity.”
“That is not to say there are not still people who have political cause to leave Cuba,” he said. As with other countries, Rhodes said, “political asylum continues to be an option.” Adjudication of asylum claims of political or other persecution normally takes several years, allowing time to be granted a green card under the Cuban Adjustment Act before there is even a ruling on the claim.
The Cuban government continues to arrest dissidents and restrict civil liberties, including political and press freedoms. At the same time, however, it has slowly loosened its grip on the economy — allowing the growth of a private sector — and liberalized some other restrictions.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who has long advocated rapprochement with Cuba, said in a statement that “this is a welcome step in reforming an illogical and discriminatory policy that contrasted starkly with the treatment of deserving refugees from other countries. Refugees from all countries should be treated the same way, and now they will be. That’s the American way.”
Engage Cuba, a coalition of private U.S. companies and organizations working to end the trade embargo still in place against Cuba, called it “a logical, responsible, and important step towards further normalizing relations with Cuba.”
The new agreement also ends the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, adopted under the George W. Bush administration, which targeted Cuba’s policy of sending medical professionals abroad as a form of humanitarian aid by encouraging them to defect. The program allowed U.S. embassies abroad to accept them for U.S. migration.
A U.S. lottery that gives green cards to 20,000 Cubans on the island each year remains in place, Rhodes said.