President Obama has officially terminated the policy known as “wet foot, dry foot.” The policy has given Cubans who arrive on U.S. soil residency even if they don’t have visas, while barring residence to those intercepted at sea. This decision is expected to be one of the final foreign policy decisions of Obama’s presidency.
The White House has been working to change this policy since Cuban-U.S. relations began to thaw. The changes include a path to return to Cuba for those unable to enter the U.S. This sudden change in policy comes a week before Obama leaves office.
The wet foot, dry-foot policy was included in a 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act, the 1966 legislation intended to isolate Cuba, which the White House has fought to end. Obama defended his decision in a statement on Thursday.
“By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.”
The Cuban government has argued that the policy encourages Cubans to make the dangerous trek from Cuba to Florida. Other nations have argued the policy amounts to preferential treatment for one group. Senator Bob Menendez blasted the statement, saying the move will only “will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people.”
More than a million Cubans have come to the U.S. since Cuba’s 1959 revolution. The Obama administration has granted residency to more than 250,000 Cubans. The policy differentiated between those reaching U.S. soil, who were allowed to stay, and those intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard and returned to Cuba or sent to third countries.
President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to reverse relations with Cuba. Trump has the option to order the Department of Homeland Security to reinstitute the wet foot, dry foot policy. His decision will depend on Cuba, which continues to limit civil liberties but is slowly allowing the growth of its private sector.