Obama Changes Cuban Immigration Policy: 'Wet Foot, Dry Foot' Ends

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on January 13, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Part of President Barack Obama's legacy will be normalizing America's relations and diplomatic ties with Cuba, ending a half-century of hostilities between the two countries. While that opens the door for more travel and trade between the two nations, it also means that some immigration windows are closing for Cuban citizens.

A two decades-old exception allowing Cubans who arrived on U.S. soil to gain legal residency, colorfully known as "wet foot, dry foot," is coming to an end, and Cuban immigrants will be treated the same as those seeking asylum from any other country.

Cuban Exceptionalism

The exception for asylum-seekers from Cuba dates back to 1995, and was a reflection of both Fidel Castro's oppressive regime and the United States' struggle in striking a balance between providing sanctuary to Cubans trying to flee that regime and unrestricted entry for immigrants. The name "wet foot, dry foot" refers to the distinction between where Cubans would be intercepted on their way into the United States, and how that would affect their immigration status: Cubans caught trying to reach the U.S. at sea were returned home; those who could make it onto American soil were allowed to stay and eventually apply for legal, permanent residency.

Cuba, for its part, is also altering its re-entry policy, which previously barred Cubans who had been abroad over four years from returning. The Cuban government said it would grant re-entry to over 2,000 citizens who fled in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, and repeal the policy if the United States also repeals the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 which originated the "wet foot, dry foot" policy on the presumption that all Cubans were political refugees.

American Immigration

The end of the Cuban exception is now a reflection of the weakening of the Castro regime (even before his death last November) and the improving diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries. "What we've agreed to is that the past is past, and the future will be different," Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson said. "This is us repealing a policy unique to Cuba given the nature of the relationship 20 years ago, which is very different right now."

Cubans may still seek political asylum in the U.S., but must prove political persecution the same as asylum seekers from other countries in order to stay. They can also now be deported like Visa-less immigrants from other countries as well. Thus placing the two countries one step closer to putting their contentious past behind them.

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