Obama Ends Exemption for Cubans Who Arrive Without Visas
By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and FRANCES ROBLES JAN. 12, 2017
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Thursday that he was terminating the
22-year-old policy that has allowed Cubans who arrived on United States
soil without visas to remain in the country and gain legal residency, an
unexpected move long sought by the Cuban government.
“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,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “By taking this step, we are
treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other
The move places a finishing touch on Mr. Obama’s efforts as president to
end a half-century of hostility between the United States and Cuba and
to establish normalized relations and diplomatic ties with a government
American presidents have long sought to isolate and punish.
The action came through a new Department of Homeland Security
regulation and a deal with the Cuban government, which Mr. Obama said
had agreed to accept the return of its citizens.
“What we’ve agreed to is that the past is past, and the future will be
different,” said Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary. “This is
us repealing a policy unique to Cuba given the nature of the
relationship 20 years ago, which is very different right now.”
The so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which dates to 1995, owes its
name to its unusual rules, which require Cubans caught trying to reach
the United States by sea to return home, yet allow those who make it
onto American soil to stay and eventually apply for legal, permanent
It was one way in which the United States tried to weaken Fidel Castro’s
government, by welcoming tens of thousands of Cubans fleeing repression.
In recent years, however, it has become a magnet for economic refugees,
enticing many Cubans to make a perilous journey to the United States,
where they enjoy a status unlike migrants from any other country.
“The exceptionalism of the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy toward Cuba is a
relic of the Cold War, and this decision by the administration is really
its final effort to normalize an area of interaction between Cuba and
the United States, migration, that is clearly in need of normalization,”
said Peter Kornbluh, a co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba,” which
recounts the secret negotiations between the United States and Cuban
governments that forged the policy.
But the change drew sharp criticism from opponents of Mr. Obama’s move
to thaw United States relations with Cuba, who argued it would reward
dictators in Cuba, ignoring their human rights abuses.
“Today’s announcement will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro
regime continues to have around the neck of its own people,” Senator
Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, said in a statement. He said
Congress had not been consulted on the move, and he added, “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 J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, who led
clandestine negotiations that produced the 2014 opening, said most
Cubans who came to the United States in the past “absolutely had to
leave” Cuba “for political purposes.” Now, he said, the flow is largely
of people seeking greater economic opportunity. Ending the policy, he
added, is a reflection of Mr. Obama’s view that, ultimately, the rise of
a new generation of Cubans pressing for change in their own country is
vital to bringing about change there.
“It’s important that Cuba continue to have a young, dynamic population
that are agents of change,” Mr. Rhodes said.
Jorge Mas, the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, said
the changes would force Cuba’s leaders to be more responsive to their
citizens. “People may be initially upset at not being able to have this
way of getting out of Cuba, but ultimately, the solution for Cuba is
people fighting for change in Cuba,” Mr. Mas said.
The change in policy essentially guts the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966,
which assumed that Cubans were political refugees who needed protection
and allowed those who remained in the United States for more than a year
to become legal residents.
Obama administration officials urged Congress on Thursday to repeal the
measure, but in the interim, by eliminating the policy that
automatically afforded parole to Cubans arriving in the United States,
they have essentially denied Cuban migrants the opportunity to take
advantage of its benefits.
Cuba, likewise, still has a law in place that denies re-entry to
migrants once they have been gone for four years or more; Mr. Rhodes
said officials in Havana have pledged to repeal it once the United
States Congress scraps the Cuban Adjustment Act.
Cubans who believe they will be persecuted if they return home will
still be permitted to apply for political asylum when they reach the
According to the agreement, which was signed on Thursday in Havana, the
Cuban government said it would accept 2,746 people who fled in the
Mariel boatlift of 1980 back into the country, and consider accepting
back others on a case-by-case basis.
The Obama administration also eliminated the Cuban Medical Parole
program, in which Cuban medical professionals stationed in international
missions could defect and get fast-tracked visas to the United States.
Obama administration officials had initially said they were not planning
to change the policy after efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. But
the thaw prompted speculation that once diplomatic relations resumed —
as they did in 2015 — the arrangement would end. On Thursday, the
officials said they had deliberately played down talk of revising the
policy for fear of setting off an even larger exodus from the island nation.
The number of Cubans trying to arrive by sea surged after the United
States and Cuba announced the decision to restore diplomatic relations
in 2014. In the 2014 fiscal year, almost 4,000 Cubans either landed or
were caught. Two years later, the number shot up to 7,411, according to
the Coast Guard.
The number of Cubans who have since begun to arrive in the United States
by land has also soared in recent years. The number of Cubans who
arrived at the Southwest border has increased more than fivefold since
2009. Last year, almost 55,000 Cubans arrived nationwide, the Department
of Homeland Security said.
Kevin Appleby of the Center for Migration Studies of New York praised
the specific change, while questioning the broader rules covering
asylum. “The good news is that it ensures equal treatment between Cubans
and asylum-seekers from other nations,” he said. “The bad news is that
our asylum system is broken and does not afford adequate due process and
protection to those who need it.”
Phil Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center, said that the number
of Cubans entering the United States is actually much higher because
tens of thousands more overstay their visitor visas and still others
Source: Obama Ends Exemption for Cubans Who Arrive Without Visas – The
New York Times –