Obama Ends Decades Old Immigration Policy for Cuban Migrants

The Obama administration on Thursday announced the termination of a 22-year-old policy which allowed every Cuban national who set foot on U.S. soil, with or without a visa, to remain in the country and gain legal residency.

REUTERS/Carlos BarriaU.S. President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro hold their first meeting on the second day of Obama's visit to Cuba, in Havana March 21, 2016.

The "wet foot, dry foot" policy, which was implemented in 1995 under then-President Bill Clinton, allowed any Cuban who reached U.S. soil ("dry foot") to stay but returned those intercepted at sea ("wet foot"). The policy has been a longstanding exception to the U.S. immigration policy and the Cuban government, too, has sought its repeal for years.

The policy shift, which is effective immediately, has been in the works for months in an attempt to normalize relations betweens U.S. and Cuba. The announcement of the policy change was abrupt because the governments of both countries wanted to prevent an exodus from the island nation to the nearby American state of Florida as people would have attempted to beat the deadline, reports Reuters.

"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," Obama said in a statement. "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."

President Obama also added that the United States will continue to welcome Cuban migrants, but in a manner consistent with U.S. immigration laws.

The move has been appreciated by the Cuban government who has always been firmly against the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, saying that it tempted its citizens to leave the country. Calling the agreement "an important step in advancing relations," Cuban officials also said that it "aims to guarantee normal, safe and ordered migration."

Obama made use of an administrative rule to change the policy which means that Donald Trump, who has strongly criticized Obama's efforts to improve U.S. - Cuba relations, could potentially reverse the decision when he becomes president next week, reports the Associated Press.

But the eviction of thousands of illegal immigrants strongly aligns with Trump's stand on tough immigration laws which was a key point in his election campaign, so it remains to be seen what he does when he takes the seat in the Oval Office.

While Trump has not yet issued a statement, or more plausibly 'tweeted', about the policy change, several members of Congress have spoken out against the move.

"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 also added that the Obama administration had not consulted Congress before changing the policy.

Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, commented that the existing policy needed to be revamped and not ended. Rubio also added that he spoke with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and was "heartened by the fact that in a week we will have a new administration committed to discarding the failed Cuba policy of the last two years."