Obama administration ends special immigration policy for Cubans

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By Patricia Zengerle | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON The Obama administration on Thursday
announced the repeal of a measure granting automatic residency
to virtually every Cuban who arrived in the United States,
whether or not they had visas, ending a longstanding exception
to U.S. immigration policy.

The end of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which allowed
any Cuban who reached U.S. soil to stay but returned any picked
up at sea, is effective immediately. Cuban officials had sought
the change for years.

The shift had been in the works for months. It was announced
abruptly because advance warning might have inspired thousands
more people to take to the seas between the Communist-ruled
island and Florida in order to beat a deadline.

The United States and Cuba spent several months negotiating
the change, including an agreement from Cuba to allow those
turned away from the United States to return.

The Department of Homeland Security also ended a parole
program that allowed entry for Cuban medical professionals. That
program was unpopular with Havana because it prompted doctors to
leave, sapping the country’s pool of trained health workers.

The U.S. Coast Guard intercepts thousands of Cubans
attempting the 90-mile (145-km) crossing to Florida every year,
but tens of thousands who reach U.S. soil, including via Mexico,
have been allowed to stay in the country, while immigrants from
other nations have been rounded up and sent home.

The administration had rejected Cuban entreaties to overturn
the policy before President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the
island last year, although even some White House aides argued
that it was outmoded given efforts to regularize relations
between the former Cold War foes.

“Wet foot, dry foot” began in 1995 under President Bill
Clinton after an exodus of tens of thousands of Cubans who were
picked up at sea by the Coast Guard as they tried to reach
Florida.

Obama has been working to normalize relations with Cuba
since he and President Raul Castro announced a breakthrough in
diplomatic relations in December 2014. His administration has
eased restrictions on travel and trade, allowing more U.S.
business with Cuba and improved communications with the island.

“With this change we will continue to welcome Cubans as we
welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our
laws,” Obama said in a statement.

Cuban officials said the U.S. policy had promoted illegal
migration, people-trafficking and dangerous journeys across the
Florida Straits on flimsy vessels.

Anticipating the end of the policy, Cuban migration has
surged since the 2014 normalization, said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s
deputy national security adviser.

“People were motivated to migrate,” Rhodes told reporters on
a call, noting some 40,000 Cubans arrived in 2015 and about
54,000 in 2016.

“MIXED EMOTIONS IN LITTLE HAVANA”

The move to end the policy comes just eight days before the
Democratic president turns the White House over to Republican
Donald Trump, who has said the United States should get more
concessions from Havana in exchange for improved relations.

U.S. immigration policy has given Cubans benefits granted to
nationals from no other country. Until now, virtually every
Cuban who made it to U.S. soil was granted the right to stay in
the country, the right to apply for work permits and, later,
green cards, which convey lawful permanent residency.

Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security, said on a call
that Cuba will take back citizens as long as less than four
years have passed between the time the migrant left Cuba and the
start of the U.S. deportation proceedings.

The move sparked mixed emotions in Miami’s Little Havana
neighborhood.

Mario Garcia, a Cuban mechanic in Little Havana, said the
policy change angered him.

“It’s not like Communism has ended in Cuba, so why stop this
that has saved people’s lives?” he said.

But Eulalia Jimenez, who is Venezuelan, said the policy was
not fair to migrants from other countries who also flee bad
conditions.

“Why should only the Cuban people be able to come and make a
life for themselves?” Jimenez said.

Some U.S. lawmakers had been demanding a fresh look at the
immigration rules, saying Cubans coming to the United States
simply for economic reasons should not be automatically granted
benefits intended for refugees.

“This is a welcome step in reforming an illogical and
discriminatory policy that contrasted starkly with the treatment
of deserving refugees from other countries,” Senator Patrick
Leahy, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake also said eliminating the
policy was “a win for taxpayers, border security and our allies
in the Western Hemisphere.”

Flake and Leahy both support Obama’s moves toward freer
trade and travel with Cuba. But Democratic Senator Robert
Menendez, a staunch opponent and the son of Cuban immigrants,
called Thursday’s announcement a betrayal of Cubans fleeing
persecution.

“We should never deny a Cuban refugee fleeing a brutal
regime entry into the United States,” Menendez said.

The Department of Homeland Security is also eliminating an
exemption that prevented the use of expedited removal programs
for Cuban nationals picked up at ports of entry or near the
border.

But an existing Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program is
not affected by Thursday’s announcement and remains in effect. (Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Eric Beech, Roberta
Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe in Washington D.C., and Zachary
Fagenson in Miami)



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