The administration said Thursday that it was revoking the special “wet foot, dry foot” policy that gives legal status to Cubans who manage to reach the U.S., as President Obama sought to put the crowning touch on his rapprochement with the communist island.
Mr. Obama also ended a program to entice Cuban doctors working in other countries to flee to the U.S.
The president said the policies were relics of “a different era” and said scrapping them was the next logical step in reaching out to Cuba and making U.S. immigration policy fair for everyone. His aides said Cubans are fleeing their homes for the same economic reasons as Central Americans, and it no longer makes sense to treat them differently.
“This is a move toward equalizing our immigration policies with regard to those who come here illegally,” said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who was responsible for the deportation policy change.
He said that under the policy, effective immediately, his agents will try to deport any Cubans caught in the U.S. It is a reversal of a decades-old policy to grant parole and a path to citizenship to any Cuban who reached land in the U.S. In exchange, Cuba has agreed to take back anybody U.S. deportees — including, presumably, criminals.
The agreement does not affect any Cuban who made it into the U.S. before Thursday. It was also unclear whether the Obama administration won any concessions to deport the 30,000 Cuban criminals living in the U.S. because their home country wouldn’t take them back.
Republicans and Democrats said Mr. Obama’s policy would condemn more Cubans to life under a repressive regime.
A 1966 U.S. law decreed that any Cuban who made it to the U.S. could be put on a quick path to citizenship. The government began offering parole into the country for any Cuban who could make it to land, granting them entry while they waited for their green card.
The name “wet-foot, dry-foot” stems from a 1990s-era change that said any migrant caught in the water would be returned to Cuba, but those who managed to reach U.S. soil were eligible for parole and, eventually, citizenship.
Members of Congress said they weren’t consulted on the changes. Administration officials said they had to keep the negotiations quiet so they didn’t spark a surge of migrants trying to beat the announcement.
Since Cuba enacted a liberalized travel policy several years ago, a surge of migrants have made their way from Cuba to Central America, then traveled north to try to enter the U.S. Some 40,000 Cubans were granted parole under wet-foot, dry-foot in 2015, and 54,000 were admitted in 2016.
The agreement between the U.S. and Cuba also nixes a marquee program started under the Bush administration to entice doctors that the Castro government in Havana deployed to other countries to come to the U.S. instead.
Cuba, famed for having a strong medical service, sends personnel around the globe as part of soft-power diplomacy, getting much-needed cash or oil in return.
That made the U.S. program a thorn in Cuba’s side, said Emilio Gonzalez, the former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who oversaw the program’s creation in 2006.
“This was a moneymaker for the Cuban government,” he said. “The Cuban government has been really lobbying and pressuring the Obama administration to do away with it. They’re probably more concerned about the medical program than they are about anything else.”
Mr. Gonzalez said Mr. Obama is treating the Cuban government like other normal countries, but the former immigration services director said Cuba, with a military dictatorship and a continued role in narcotrafficking, is not normal.
“Cuba is North Korea with beaches, and Obama has worked overtime to try to make Cuba be just like every other country in the hemisphere,” he said.
He said accepting a military regime that came to power through a coup as a legitimate government sends a dangerous signal to other Latin American countries.
“He got absolutely nothing in return. And the bottom line is he wanted nothing in return. This is strictly ideological,” Mr. Gonzalez said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said Thursday night that he’s had conversations with the incoming Trump administration and is “optimistic” that the next president will reinstate the medical program.
“For decades, the Castro regime has forced thousands of doctors to go abroad as a tool of its foreign policy. This is political repression,” Mr. Rubio said.
Mr. Obama, in his statement, said the U.S. doctors policy was harming Cuba by siphoning medical care from the island.
He said his goal with the broader wet-foot, dry-foot change was to help keep Cubans in Cuba, where he said they have a better chance at economic opportunities thanks to the changes he’s made.
“During my administration, we worked to improve the lives of the Cuban people — inside of Cuba — by providing them with greater access to resources, information and connectivity to the wider world,” he said. “Sustaining that approach is the best way to ensure that Cubans can enjoy prosperity, pursue reforms and determine their own destiny.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said the U.S. is abandoning its role as “a beacon of light for those fleeing persecution.”
“To be sure, today’s announcement will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people,” said Mr. Menendez, who noted that Mr. Obama waited until he had less than 10 days in office to make the move.
Mr. Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, but both sides agreed to put off thorny questions of migration for later. With only days left in power, Mr. Obama pulled the trigger.
President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson blasted Mr. Obama’s overall rapprochement, saying he didn’t get enough human rights concessions in return. “We have not held them accountable for their conduct,” he said at his confirmation hearing.