President Obama announced Thursday an end to the 20-year-old "wet foot, dry foot" policy that allowed most Cuban migrants who reach U.S. soil to stay and become legal permanent residents after one year.
President Obama issued a statement Thursday evening saying the U.S. is working to normalize relations with its one-time foe, and ending this policy was the next logical step.
"Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal," Obama said. "By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries."
The "wet foot, dry foot" policy, created by President Clinton in 1995, has generally allowed Cubans who simply touch U.S. soil to stay in the country. Those caught at sea are returned to Cuba. In exchange for the new policy, Cuba has agreed to start accepting Cubans who were issued a deportation order in the United States, something the communist nation has refused to do for decades.
The decision, formalized in a joint statement issued by both governments Thursday, comes as Obama tries to cement his historic opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba and one week before President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
Obama ended more than five decades of isolation with Cuba in December 2014 and even visited the island in 2016. Trump has said he would renegotiate the U.S. dealings with Cuba, and ending the "wet foot, dry foot" policy could affect Trump's plans.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has advocated for closer ties with Cuba, praised the move.
"Individuals on both sides of the U.S.-Cuba debate recognize and agree that ending ‘wet foot, dry foot’ is in our national interest," Flake said. "It’s a move that brings our Cuba policy into the modern era, while allowing the United States to continue its generous approach to those individuals and refugees with a legitimate claim for asylum."
Others were enraged, arguing that Cuba's communist regime continues to violate the human rights of its citizens. Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, called Obama's decision "another example of a heartless foreign policy."
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, agreed. "With just eight days left in his administration, President Obama has found one more way to frustrate the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people and provide yet another shameful concession to the Castro regime," he said.
Cubans have received favorable treatment from the United States ever since Fidel Castro took control of the island in 1959 and declared it a communist ally of the Soviet Union. Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966 that allowed tens of thousands of Cubans who had already fled Castro's revolution to gain legal status in the U.S.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it left Cuba in economic ruin, prompting thousands more to take to the sea for the United States on makeshift boats and rafts. To end the crisis, Clinton enacted the "wet foot, dry foot" policy.
Rumors that the policy would end have been rampant in Cuba since the 2014 rapprochement between the two countries, prompting a surge of Cubans fleeing for the United States. In the year before Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the opening of diplomatic relations, 24,278 Cubans reached the U.S. That number nearly doubled in 2015 and surpassed 54,000 in 2016, according to the White House.
Many Cubans continue traveling to the U.S. by sea in rickety, dangerous boats built from spare parts in Cuba. In recent years, more Cubans have taken advantage of laws that allow them to travel to Ecuador, where thousands have started the long, dangerous land voyage across Venezuela, Central America and Mexico to reach the southwest border.
The Obama administration said the surge in Cubans risking their lives to reach the U.S. played an important factor in its decision. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the improving diplomatic relationship between the two countries also contributed.
For example, U.S. officials met Thursday with their Cuban counterparts in Washington to coordinate efforts to combat human trafficking, and another set of government officials met in Havana to discuss outstanding claims by U.S. citizens who had their property confiscated during Fidel Castro’s revolution.
Rhodes pointed to one more factor: Most Cubans now come to the U.S. "for more traditional reasons, in terms of seeking economic opportunity," instead of fleeing in fear of the Castro regime as in the past.
That's why the U.S. should treat them the same as economic migrants from any other country, Rhodes said.
"There's not going to be a separate queue for Cubans," he said. "It just treats the Cuban migrants like migrants from other countries."
Under the new joint agreement, the U.S. will still accept at least 20,000 Cubans each year through traditional immigration channels.