WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said on Thursday that he decided to end a practice that gave undocumented Cuban migrants who reached US soil the right to remain and become permanent residents because the “wet foot/dry foot” policy belongs to “a different era.”
The policy mandated repatriation to Cuba for the vast majority of undocumented Cubans intercepted at sea, while those who managed to enter the territory of the United States were welcomed with open arms.
“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 US law and enforcement priorities,” the president said in a statement.
Cuba has long demanded an end to wet foot/dry foot, which the Havana government says encourages Cubans to embark on risky sea journeys in hopes of reaching the US.
Wet-foot/dry foot “was put in place more than 20 years ago and was designed for a different era,” Obama said Thursday.
Some change to the policy, which is based on the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, has been expected since the US and Cuba restored diplomatic relations as part of a process of normalization started in December 2014.
“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,” Obama said.
The decision to abandon wet foot/dry foot comes just eight days before Obama is to be succeeded by Republican Donald Trump, who has threatened to reverse the normalization with Cuba unless Havana makes certain concessions.
Rapprochement with Cuba is seen as one of the major accomplishments of Obama’s second term. In March, he became the first sitting US president since 1928 to visit the Caribbean island.