The Obama administration is ending a policy that allowed Cubans who arrived in the US without visas to stay and gain residency, the Associated Press reported on Thursday, citing a senior administration official.
The change in the policy, known as “wet foot, dry foot,” is effective immediately, the official told the AP.
The US and Cuba have spent several months negotiating the change, including an agreement from Cuba to allow those turned away from the US to return, the official said, according to the AP.
The Cubans gave no assurances about treatment for those sent back to the country, the official told the AP, but political asylum will still be an option for those worried about mistreatment if sent back.
President Bill Clinton implemented it in 1995, changing a more liberal immigration policy. The Cuban government complained about the policy, saying it drained the country of professional workers and encouraged migrants to make dangerous trips (though it also let the most unhappy Cubans exit the one-party state).
The shift in policy comes just days before Obama leaves office, and it is likely the last major change he will make as part of his overhaul of US-Cuba relations.
The Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which allowed Cuban medical professionals to seek parole in the US while working abroad, is being rescinded as well. The decades-old embargo remains in place, as does the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to become permanent residents a year after legally arriving in the US.
Of the Medical Professional program, the White House said in a statement that giving preferential treatment to Cuban medical workers “contradicts” joint US-Cuban efforts to combat disease and “risks harming the Cuban people.”
As the rapprochement between the US and Cuba has progressed over the last two years, a wave of migrants have left the island, many of them concerned that preferential immigration policies for Cubans arriving the US would end with a new era of engagement between Washington and Havana.
During the 2016 fiscal year, which ended in September, 41,500 Cubans — a five-year high — came to the US through the southern border, and 7,000 more arrived in October and November. The flow of Cuban migrants traveling through other countries in the region on their way to the US has strained those countries, particularly ones in Central America.
The policy has been criticized for giving preferential treatment to Cuban migrants while excluding others, particularly Central American migrants, who are also fleeing hardship and violence.
“The Obama Administration has taken a positive step toward a more sensible Cuban immigration policy, one that ends preferential treatment for Cubans compared with others who arrive without visas,” Washington Office on Latin America program director Geoff Thale said in a statement after the announcement.
“This change ‘normalizes’ our treatment of Cuban immigrants,” Thale added in the statement.
(Writing for Reuters by Eric Beech; editing by Eric Walsh)