Wet Foot / Dry Foot Policy Ends for Cuban Nationals

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With only about a week left in his tenure as the nation’s commander in chief, President Obama ends the policy granting automatic legal residency for Cuban nationals on U.S. soil. While the end of the so-called wet foot / dry foot parole policy is the result of the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations with the island nation, it also signals the end of an easy pathway to a new life in the United States for Cuban citizens.

The change, which doesn’t affect the existing Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, is being implemented by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and became effective January 12. Additionally, DHS has ended a policy specifically designed for medical professionals from the country, known as the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program. Another point of change in the agency’s policy is its elimination of an exemption that previously prevented expedited removal proceedings of Cuban nationals apprehended at ports of entry or near the U.S. border.

“It is now Department policy to consider any request for such parole in the same manner as parole requests filed by nationals of other countries,” according to a DHS release.

The Cuban Adjustment Act– referred to as the wet foot / dry foot policy– was established by President Bill Clinton in 1994. The policy allowed any Cuban national to establish legal residency immediately in the United States in cases where Cuban nationals were:

  • Inspected and admitted or paroled into the United States
  • Physically present in the United States for at least one year
  • Otherwise admissible

The change to the longstanding policy began in December 2014 with President Obama’s announcement of the historic reopening of relations between the United States and Cuba. In re-establishing relations with Cuba, the two nations diplomatic leaders have adjusted travel regulations in an effort to facilitate greater travel, commerce, people-to-people ties and the free flow of information to, from and within Cuba. In the two years since the president’s announcement, Cuban and the U.S. have “taken concrete steps towards enhancing security, building bridges between our peoples, and promoting economic prosperity for citizens of both countries.”

While some immigration advocates no doubt see the new policy as a negative, some opponents of Cuba’s communist leadership say rescinding the Cuban Adjustment Act will serve to increase the pressure for reform. As dissatisfied Cubans flee their native country, so too do those elements of political agitation that bring change.

The change in U.S. policy also has financial implications for the nation of Cuba. As Cuban nationals build new lives in the United States, many commonly sent remittances to family who remained on the island. As fewer nationals will now leave the island, one report speculates, the amount of money flowing to individuals there will likewise decrease.

Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat for U.S. affairs, says the former policy was riddled with problems.

“It was creating serious problems for the security of Cuba, for the security of the United States and for the security of our citizens left vulnerable to human trafficking, migratory fraud and violence as a result of the incentives created by these preferential policies,” Vidal said.

President-Elect Trump could reverse President Obama’s policy change after he’s sworn into office next week. Trump has been critical of Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Cuba, but the incoming president also has a history of strong rhetoric against undocumented immigration.

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