US to end "wet foot, dry foot" policy on Cuban immigration

The Obama Administration announced late Thursday that it plans to stop granting residency protection to Cubans who enter the United States without a visa.

The Associated Press first cited an anonymous senior administration official in reporting the coming end of the so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy.

The official is quoted as saying "the U.S. and Cuba have spent several months negotiating the change, including an agreement from Cuba to allow those turned away from the U.S. to return."

The change to the policy comes barely a week before President Barack Obama, who has made efforts to normalize relations with Cuba during his administration, hands over the reins of power to Republican Donald Trump.

The "wet foot, dry foot" policy gets its name from a Clinton Administration-era change to immigration rules, which give Cubans who make it to U.S. shores (or get one foot on dry land, so to speak) a chance for American residency after one year in the country.

In a statement Thursday evening, Obama said "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."

He continued that:

"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."

Obama also said the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program would end and medical workers who had been sent to study or work in other countries would be able to apply for asylum at "U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, consistent with the procedures for all foreign nationals."

The U.S. flag flies over the reopened American Embassy in Havana.Ramon Espinosa/AP

In explaining the rationale for the policy change, the departing president summed up, 

"During my administration, we worked to improve the lives of the Cuban people — inside of Cuba —by providing them with greater access to resources, information and connectivity to the wider world. Sustaining that approach is the best way to ensure that Cubans can enjoy prosperity, pursue reforms, and determine their own destiny."

Following an April 2016 report claiming a record "tens of thousands" of Cubans had rushed to enter the U.S. ahead of an expected change in immigration policy, Fox News noted Cubans who seek to resettle in America have long been treated differently than others who enter without documentation:

Cubans can get permanent resident status after living in the U.S. for a year and can later become a citizen as part of the decades-old Cuban Adjustment Act. No other immigrant community is afforded the same on-arrival treatment. Most foreigners trying to come to the United States without a visa try to cross the Mexican border illegally, and typically are arrested and face deportation.

The just-announced change is likely Obama's last major policy move before he leaves office on Jan. 20.

President Barack Obama met with Cuba's Raul Castro in March.Ramon Espinosa/AP

In March, Obama made a historic visit to the island nation, marking the first such journey by an American president in more than 80 years.

During his visit, Obama met with Cuban President Raul Castro to discuss the normalization of relations between the two countries, which have long been at odds over Cuba's repressive socialist regime, which punished and imprisoned dissenters, journalists and LGBTQ citizens.

Cuba's revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, died in November at age 90. He came to power in 1959 with the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista and left a mixed legacy that caused his demise to leave some mourning as others rejoiced.

It remains to be seen which, if any, of Obama's policy updates would be changed by Trump once he takes office, whether immigration-related, commercial or otherwise.