WASHINGTON, D.C. – United States President Barack Obama has announced that he is putting an end to the wet foot-dry foot policy, instituted more than 20 years ago by then-President Bill Clinton, in which any Cubans that reached US shores in any manner were allowed to stay and given residency.
In one of his last acts before his final presidential term ends on January 20, Obama announced through the Office of the Press Secretary that the United States is taking the “important step” in changing its policies with the island nation as part of a move forward to “normalize relations with Cuba” and to “bring greater consistency to our immigration policy.”
“The Department of Homeland Security is ending the so-called “wet-foot/dry foot” policy, which was put in place more than twenty years ago and was designed for a different era,” the statement read.
Obama’s move explains that Cuban immigrants will now be treated no differently than others: “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 U.S. law and enforcement priorities.”
“By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries,” Obama said.
The action was taken in cooperation and accordance with his counterparts in Havana: “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 statement also announced the end of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (CMPP), an initiative started by George W. Bush (2001-2009) in 2006.
The CMPP allowed Cuban medical personnel studying or working in a third country with permission from the Cuban government to essentially defect to the United States where they stood to earn much more money working in the medical field due to the privatized and monopolized nature of the health care system.
This entry was granted to these Cuban medical professionals, which included doctors, nurses, paramedics, physical therapists, lab technicians and sports trainers, that were sent by the Cuban government to a third country after they volunteered to either study or work abroad as part of a humanitarian effort.
They were welcomed into the United States under the two qualifying requirements: “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit,” with the public benefit being that the United States receives more medical professionals.
This action was taken by the Bush administration despite the fact that frequent offers of medical help by the Cuban government in cases of catastrophe were rejected; this included the September 11 terrorist attacks and the disastrous Hurricane Katrina.
In ending the program, Obama recognized the role it played in damaging services to Cubans and other nations wherein the Cuban professionals were based: “The United States and Cuba are working together to combat diseases that endanger the health and lives of our people. By providing preferential treatment to Cuban medical personnel, the medical parole program contradicts those efforts, and risks harming the Cuban people.”
Obama recalled that “the United States, a land of immigrants, has been enriched by the contributions of Cuban-Americans for more than a century” and closed by daying that “with this change, we will continue to welcome Cubans as we welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our laws.”
In 1995, then-President Bill Clinton (1993-2001), amid deteriorating relations with the then-Fidel Castro-led Cuba, instituted the wet foot/dry foot policy, which ensured a work permit, initial monetary aid and permanent residency after a year for all Cubans that made it to US shores. The “wet feet,” meanwhile, meaning those that were stopped by US security forces at sea, were sent back to Cuba.
The “normalization” of immigration policy toward Cuba is part of a greater normalization in relations seen between Washington and Havana. Pushed by both Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro, the culmination of the newfound relations occurred in March of 2016 when Obama made history as the first sitting US leader to visit Cuba since 1928.
Seemingly, the warming in relations between Cuba and the US was spurred by the normalization between Cuba and the European Union, or vice-versa.
Both entities, however, ramped up their efforts after Cuba engaged in economic-centered negotiations concerning multi-billion dollar projects with China, Brazil, Mexico, Russia and others.
Prior to the progress made recently, the US and Cuba, only 140 kilometers (90 miles) apart, had a very tense relationship set along the backdrop of the Cold War. Initially, US President Dwight Eisenhower cut formal diplomatic ties after Washington disagreed with former leader Fidel Castro’s economic and social policies that he instituted following the victorious uprising he led in 1959 against the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
Eisenhower said after cutting diplomatic links that he “hoped” that the “historic friendship” between the two nations would be restored soon, most likely because he expected Cuban leader Fidel Castro to step down under heavy US pressure (or an invasion like the Bay of Pigs) or die from repeated US assassination attempts. Over half a century and 11 US Heads-of-State later, those diplomatic links were finally re-established.