(ESPAÑOL) The Obama administration on Thursday repealed a measure granting automatic residency to virtually every Cuban who arrived in the United States, whether or not they had visas, ending a longstanding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.
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.
“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.
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.
Cuba welcomed the policy changes, saying they would benefit the whole region by discouraging people-trafficking and dangerous journeys that led to bottlenecks of Cubans in Central America last year.
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.