The Slatest

Obama Makes One Last Cuba Move Before He’s out the Door

A man wears a T-shirt depicting U.S. President Barack Obama on Jan. 19, 2010, in Havana.

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The Obama administration announced Thursday that it is scrapping the so-called wet foot, dry foot policy granting residency to Cubans who arrive in the United States without visas. The AP reports that the change had been negotiated for months between the U.S. and Cuban governments, and it will likely be the last of a number of significant changes in Cuba policy made by Obama.

Cubans were given special preference in immigration under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. Under a 1995 revision, the policy became that Cubans caught at sea on their way to the United States could be sent back, but those who reached American soil would not be repatriated and could receive permanent residence status after a year: wet foot, dry foot.

The policy has been controversial. It was decried as a racist double standard at a time when the U.S. was forcibly returning Haitian refugees. More recently, it’s been hard to reconcile the preferential status for Cubans when thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America have been arriving at the southern U.S. border.

There’s been a major surge in Cuban immigration to the United States since Obama announced a renewal of ties with the country in 2014 and made travel between the two countries easier. Many Cubans now regularly travel back and forth between the two countries, making the policy a harder sell on human rights grounds. Even Marco Rubio, a leading critic of Obama’s Cuba moves, has called the policy “hard to justify.” Other Latin American countries have also complained to Washington about the growing number of Cubans traveling through their countries, attempting to reach the U.S.

It was the right time to change the policy, but given that so much of U.S. immigration policy and Cuba policy may dramatically change after this month, it’s hard to say what impact it will have.