President Barack Obama announced Thursday, Jan. 12, that his administration will end a 22-year-old controversial immigration policy that allows Cubans who land on United States soil to become legal residents without a visa. Before the repeal, Cuban immigrants could eventually become legal U.S citizens after arriving. Now, however, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the U.S. and who fail to qualify for humanitarian relief will be removed, according to an official statement.
“Wet Foot, Dry Foot” Is Actually More Restrictive Than the Original Cuban Immigration Policy
On the surface, the “wet foot, dry foot” policy appeared benign on the subject. However, there was a less-restrictive “open door” policy for Cubans. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 granted Cubans permanent citizenship if they were in the country for a year. But in 1995, following a mass exodus of Cubans to the U.S., President Bill Clinton amended the rule to state that any Cubans caught trying to reach the United States by sea would have to return home. Those who actually made it to land could stay and eventually apply for legal, permanent residency.
Policy Criticized for Being Racist
The longstanding policy had been criticized for its implicit racial bias. Non-Cuban immigrants, such as Haitians, were the most vocal about the policy. In many cases, non-Cubans who entered the country without having a visa would be arrested and deported. Unlike Cuban asylum seekers, Haitians seeking political asylum or refuge during natural disasters often resulted in thousands of deportations.
The Policy Was an Attempt to Topple Cuba’s Communist Regime
The “wet foot, dry foot” policy was a tactic to weaken Fidel Castro’s Cuba. By welcoming tens of thousands of Cubans fleeing repression, the exceptionalism of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy toward Cuba would make the U.S. appear democratic and good compared to communistic and “oppressive” Cuba. In many ways, the policy was a propaganda relic of the Cold War and the Obama administration wanted to abolish it to cement the new political relationship with Cuba.
Illegal Cubans Migration Surged After U.S, Cuban Relations Improved
Cubans attempting to immigrant by sea surged after the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in 2014. That year, nearly 4,000 Cubans either landed or were caught. By 2016, that number increased to 7,411, according to reports from the Coast Guard. Since 2012, the Department of Homeland Security estimates that 118,000 Cubans have arrived at U.S. ports.
Political Asylum Is Still an Option
Cubans who believe they will be persecuted if they return home will still be permitted to apply for political asylum when they reach the United States. The new policy changes no longer assume that all Cubans coming to America are political refugees. Now, there will be stiffer protocols and criteria to meet.
Cuban Medical Parole Program Also Abolished
The Obama administration also announced that the Cuban Medical Parole program, started by President George W. Bush in 2006, will be eliminated. Under the program, Cuban medical professionals stationed in international missions could defect and get fast-tracked visas to the United States.