Washington: US President Barack Obama has ended a two-decade-old “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy that allowed Cuban migrants who reach US soil illegally to to stay and become legal residents, a significant step towards normalising relations with its former Cold War foe.
The repeal of the longstanding immigration policy, coming in the last days of the Obama administration, is effective immediately.
“The Department of Homeland Security is ending the so-called ‘wet-foot, dry foot’ policy, which was put in place more than 20 years ago and was designed for a different era,” Mr Obama said in a statement on Friday.
He said the US is taking important steps to normalise relations with the communist nation and to bring greater consistency to its immigration policy. “Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the US illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with US law and enforcement priorities,” he said.
The decision follows months of negotiations focused in part on getting Cuba to agree to take back people who had arrived in the US.
“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.”
The “wet foot, dry foot” policy mostly allows Cubans who reach US soil to stay in the country. Those caught at sea are returned to Cuba. There are around 1.8 million Cuban-Americans today, including two Republican 2016 presidential candidates, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
The Cuban government praised the move. In a statement read on state television, it called the signing of the agreement “an important step in advancing relations” between the US. and Cuba that “aims to guarantee normal, safe and ordered migration.”
But many Cubans in Panama — a waypoint on their arduous overland trek to the US — reacted with fury. “Obama has screwed all Cubans,” Yadiel Cruz, a 33-year-old, said.