On January 12, the U.S. announced that it is ending, effectively immediately, the “dry foot” immigration policy for Cubans and the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Policy. Below we will examine these cancelled policies, the U.S. announcement of the policy changes, Cuba’s announcement of the U.S. policy changes and reactions to the changes.
The Cancelled U.S. Policies
The “dry feet” policy has allowed any Cuban who arrived on land (with “dry feet”) at a U.S. point of entry to come into the U.S. and, absent negative factors, qualify for U.S. permanent residency status after one year. This policy originated soon after the early years of the Cuban Revolution before the U.S. in 1967 had ratified the international treaty on refugees and before it had adopted in 1980 a statute implementing that treaty (the Refugee Act of 1980) and when the U.S. assumed that all Cubans arriving in the U.S. were fleeing persecution.
This policy originally included Cubans who were intercepted on the water by the U.S. Coast Guard. However, in response to the Cuban Government’s legitimate concerns about the personal safety of Cubans attempting to reach the U.S. on unsafe boats, the U.S. (Bill Clinton Administration) and Cuba on September 9, 1994, reached an agreement whereby the U.S. would return to Cuba its nationals who were intercepted at sea, i.e., who had “wet feet.”
The U.S. Cuban Medical Professional Parole Policy, which was adopted on August 11, 2006, allowed “Cuban medical personnel conscripted to study or work in a third country under the direction of the Cuban government to enter the U.S.” It was available to “health-care providers who are sent by the [Cuban government] to work or study in third countries and who . . . are often denied exit permission by the Cuban Government to come to the [U.S.] when they qualify under other established legal channels to migrate from Cuba. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, physical therapists, lab technicians and sports trainers are examples of groups that may qualify for the . . . program.”
U.S. Announcement of the Change
On January 12 President Obama announced that the U.S. “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. Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the [U.S.] 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. 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 President also said the U.S. is “ending the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program. The [U.S.] 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. Cuban medical personnel will now be eligible to apply for asylum at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, consistent with the procedures for all foreign nationals.”
This termination follows months of negotiations with the Cuban government over the latter’s agreeing to accept returning Cubans.
Nearly simultaneously with the President, Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), issued a statement: “To the extent permitted by the current laws of our two countries, the [U.S.] will now treat Cuban migrants in a manner consistent with how it treats others; unauthorized migrants can expect to be removed unless they qualify for humanitarian relief under our laws.” The Department also released a Fact Sheet and the Joint Statement of the two governments about the change. Johnson pointed out that Cuba will take back citizens as long as less than four years have passed between the time the migrant left Cuba and the start of the U.S. deportation proceedings.
These changes do not affect U.S. law regarding “refugees” fleeing persecution in their home countries. Thus, if a Cuban fears “persecution” upon returning to the island, then the individual may apply for asylum in the U.S. as a “refugee” under international and U.S. law if the individual can establish that he or she has a “well-founded fear” of “persecution” in Cuba “due to” his or her “political opinion, race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group.” (Statutory words are in quotes.) They may do so in the U.S. or at an U.S. embassy or consulate in another country.
Cuban Announcement of the Change
Welcoming this change, the Cuban Government stated, “After nearly a year of negotiation and encouraged by the restoration of diplomatic relations on July 20, 2015, based on mutual respect and political will to strengthen these links and establish new understandings on various issues of common interest, [the two] governments were able to concretize this commitment that should contribute to the normalization of migration relations. . . .”
The U.S. “wet foot-dry foot” policy gave Cubans “preferential and unique treatment not received by citizens of other countries, so it was also an incitement to illegal departures. Its implementation and that of other policies led to migratory crises, kidnapping of ships and aircraft and the commission of crimes, such as trafficking in migrants, trafficking in persons, immigration fraud and the use of violence with a destabilizing extraterritorial impact on other countries of the region [that were] used [for] transit to arrive at American territory.”
This change will meant that the U.S., “consistent with its laws and international norms, shall return to the Republic of Cuba, and the Republic of Cuba, consistent with its Laws and international norms, will receive all Cuban citizens, who . . . are detected by the competent authorities of the [U.S.] when they tried to enter or stay irregularly in that country, violating its laws.”
The U.S. “Parole Program for Cuban Medical Professionals, which was part of the arsenal to deprive the country of doctors, nurses and other professionals of the sector, . . . and an attack against Cuba’s humanitarian and solidarity medical missions in Third World countries that need it so much. This policy prompted Cuban health personnel working in third countries to abandon their missions and emigrate to the [U.S.], becoming a reprehensible practice that damaged Cuba’s international medical cooperation programs.”
It “will also be necessary for the U.S. Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.”
Unaffected are prior agreements “to prevent illegal departures by sea and to return to Cuba all persons who are intercepted in those acts or who enter the Guantánamo Naval Base. The Government of the United States will continue to guarantee regular migration from Cuba with a minimum of 20,000 people per year.”
“Both governments agreed to apply their migration laws in a non-selective manner and in accordance with their international obligations. They also undertook to prevent risky exits that endanger human life, to prevent irregular migration and to combat violence associated with such manifestations, such as trafficking and trafficking in persons.” In addition, “the parties will promote effective bilateral cooperation to prevent and prosecute those involved in trafficking in persons, as well as crimes associated with migratory movements, which endanger their national security, including the hijacking of aircraft and vessels.”
“In keeping with its international obligations and its legislation, the Government of the Republic of Cuba ratifies its commitment to guarantee regular, safe and orderly migration, as well as to fully comply with this new agreement for which the corresponding measures have been taken internally. It will continue to guarantee the right to travel and emigrate to Cuban citizens and to return to the country, in accordance with the requirements of immigration law.”
The Cuban Government also published the Joint Statement of the two governments as had DHS in the U.S.
At a press conference on January 12 Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry official responsible for relations with the U.S., said that the joint “agreement recognizes the need to facilitate regular migration for the benefit of both countries, to prevent irregular migration and to prevent risky exits that endanger human life and to combat violence associated with this phenomenon and related offenses, such as trafficking in persons and trafficking in persons.”
Vidal was joined by Gustavo Machin, the Deputy Director of the United States Department of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, who summarized the joint agreement. He added that “Cuba will accept that persons who were included in the list of 2,746 Cuban citizens who migrated by the port of Mariel in 1980 [“the Mariel boat lift”] and were considered ineligible to remain in the [U.S.], . . and [those] who cannot now be returned will be replaced by other persons and returned to Cuba. Cuba will also consider receiving other Cuban citizens who are currently in the [U.S.], who violated [U.S.] laws and whom U.S. authorities have determined cannot remain in its territory.”
Reactions to the Change
As to be expected, U.S. congressional response was mixed.
Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem, VT) said, “This is a welcome step in reforming an illogical and discriminatory policy that contrasted starkly with the treatment of deserving refugees from other countries.” Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) stated that eliminating the policy “is in our national interest. It is a win for taxpayers, border security, and our allies in the Western Hemisphere. It’s a move that brings our Cuba policy into the modern era while allowing the United States to continue its generous approach to those individuals and refugees with a legitimate claim for asylum.”
Representative Kathy Castor (Dem., FL) and co-author of a bill to end the embargo (H.R.-442), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2017/01/12/representatives-emmer-and-castor-introduce-bill-to-end-embargo-of-cuba/ said, ““The end of the “wet foot/dry foot” policy should be followed by congressional action to lift the outdated economic embargo and improve economic conditions for everyday Cubans. . . . I have witnessed how the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy created an uneven playing field for immigrants from other Caribbean nations who are also seeking the opportunity to pursue the American dream. I have also seen Cubans who try to come here for short term visits to see family members negatively affected by ‘wet foot/dry foot.’ The change in policy today will help ensure that we can have safer and more orderly migration with all of our Caribbean neighbors.”
Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) said that the incoming Trump administration should reverse the part of the executive order ending the medical parole system and that there should be assurances that Cubans “who arrive here to escape political persecution are not summarily returned to the regime [but] . . . are given a fair opportunity to apply for and receive political asylum.”
Representative Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who emigrated from Cuba as a child, decried the elimination of the medical parole programs, calling it a “foolhardy concession to a regime that sends its doctors to foreign nations in a modern-day indentured servitude.”
According the Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), “Today’s announcement will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people.” He added, “The Obama administration seeks to pursue engagement with the Castro regime at the cost of ignoring the present state of torture and oppression, and its systematic curtailment of freedom.”
A positive view of the change was taken by Peter Kornbluh, a co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba,” which recounts the secret negotiations between the United States and Cuban governments that forged the policy of engagement. He said, “The exceptionalism of the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy toward Cuba is a relic of the Cold War, and this decision by the administration is really its final effort to normalize an area of interaction between Cuba and the United States, migration, that is clearly in need of normalization.”
James Williams, the President of Engage Cuba, the leading coalition of private companies and organizations working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba, said these changes are “a logical, responsible, and important step towards further normalizing relations with Cuba. The ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy has been an enduring problem that decades of hostility and isolation failed to solve. This change, which has long had strong bipartisan support, would not have been possible without the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.”
Phil Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center, said that the number of Cubans entering the United States is actually much higher because tens of thousands more overstay their visitor visas and still others migrate legally. “This is a favor to Trump because it’s a tough measure to take, but it’s the right measure to take,” Mr. Peters said. “These are economic migrants coming here that, unlike any other nationality, get a big package of government benefits without any justification.”
Kevin Appleby of the Center for Migration Studies of New York praised the specific change, while questioning the broader rules covering asylum. “The good news is that it ensures equal treatment between Cubans and asylum-seekers from other nations,” he said. “The bad news is that our asylum system is broken and does not afford adequate due process and protection to those who need it.”
Support for this change of policy also was voiced by Pedro Freyre, the chair of the international practice group of the Washington, D.C. office of law firm Akerman LLP. He observed, “This partially closes Cuba’s escape valve and will put pressure on Cubans to move forward more rapidly with reforms.” For years, he said, the last resort for Cubans frustrated with the lack of opportunity on the island has been to hire a “lanchero,” or people smuggler and attempt to reach the U.S. “Now they will have to look inward to see what they can do to fix Cuba.” The same opinion was offered by Jorge Mas, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, who welcomed the change and said it would pressure the Cuban government to improve conditions on the island.
Average Cubans and opponents of the island’s communist leaders said they expected pressure for reform to increase with the elimination of a mechanism that siphoned off the island’s most dissatisfied citizens and turned them into sources of remittances supporting relatives who remained on the island. This point was emphasized by Benjamin Rhodes, White House Deputy National Security Advisor and a principal negotiator of the rapprochement, saying, “It’s important that Cuba continue to have a young, dynamic population that are clearly serving as agents of change.”
Last year thousands of Cubans who were seeking to reach the U.S. border with Mexico and to come into the U.S. with “dry feet” created major logistical and financial problems for Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama and to a lesser extent Colombia and Ecuador. This naturally upset the governments of those countries, especially when their citizens were not eligible for these U.S. immigration policies.
Therefore, these governments welcome the U.S. terminating the policies. El Salvador’s foreign ministry said, “There cannot be migrants of different categories.” Honduras said it would wait to see if the flow of Cubans actually declined.
Cubans who had left their homeland and were now trying to reach U.S. soil when the decision was announced lamented the policy change. “It has fallen on us like a bucket of water because were never thought that at this point and with so little time before Obama leaves office that his government would make this horrible decision,” said Eugenia Diaz Hernandez, a 55-year-old Cuban in Panama whose voyage with her daughter and granddaughter had taken her through Guyana, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. “We are adrift.” Another Cuban, Jose Enrique Manreza, who ran a soda warehouse in Havana, is now stranded in Mexico, after selling his house and belongings in Cuba to raise $10,000 for his journey to reach the U.S. “Imagine how I feel, after I spent six days and six nights running through rivers and jungles in the humidity.”
This policy change, in my opinion, was long overdue. I pray and hope that the incoming Trump Administration will not reverse this change.
 U.S. Dep’t of State, Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (Jan. 26, 2009) See generally posts listed in the “Cuba Migration to U.S.” and “Cuban Medical Personnel & U.S.” sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: Cuba.
 White House, Statement by the President on Cuba Policy Changes (Jan. 12, 2017); Dep’t Homeland Security, Statement by Secretary Johnson on the Continued Normalization of Our Migration Relationship with Cuba (Jan. 12, 2017); Dep’t Homeland Security, Fact Sheet: Changes to Parole and Expedited Removal Policies Affecting Cuban Nationals (Jan. 12, 2017); Dep’t Homeland Security, Joint Statement [of U.S. and Cuba regarding changes in U.S. immigration policies] (Jan. 12, 2017); Reuters, Obama Administration Ends Special Immigration Policy for Cubans, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017); Assoc. Press, Obama Ends Visa-Free Path for Cubans Who Make It to U.S. Soil, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017); Caldwell & Pace (AP), Obama making change to Cuban immigration policy, Wash. Post (Jan. 12, 2017); DeYoung, Obama ending ‘wet-foot, dry foot’ policy allowing Cubans reaching U.S. soil to stay and receive residency, Wash. Post (Jan. 12, 2017); Davis & Robles, Obama Ends Exemption for Cubans Who Arrive Without Visas, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017); Lee, Schwartz & Córdoba, U.S. Ends ‘No-Visa’ Era for Cuban Emigrés, W.S. J. (Jan. 12, 2017).
 See posts listed in the “Cuban Medical Personnel & U.S.” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: CUBA.
 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Art. I (A); 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(42); See generally the following dwkcommentaries.com blog posts: Refugee and Asylum Law: Modern Era (July 9, 2011); Refugee and Asylum Law: Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (July 10, 2011); Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer (May 24, 2011);Teaching the International Human Rights Course (July 1, 2011).
 Cuba Foreign Ministry, Declaration of Revolutionary Government (Jan. 12, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Joint Declaration Cuba-United States (Jan. 12, 2017); Cuba ratifies its commitment to regular, safe and orderly migration, Granma (Jan. 12, 2017); Assoc. Press, Havana Hails End to Special US Immigration Policy for Cubans, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2017).
 Flake Statement on Elimination of Wet Foot, Dry Foot Policy (Jan. 12, 2017); Menendez Statement on Latest Cuba Policy Changes (Jan. 12, 2017); Rubio Comments on Obama Administration Changes to Cuba Policy (Jan. 12, 2017);Castor, Statement on Ending “Wet Foot/DryFoot” (Jan. 12, 2017); Engage Cuba Statement on Administration ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Policy Announcement (Jan. 12, 2017);Ben Rhodes: ‘There is bipartisan support’ for Congress to repeal the Adjustment Act, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 13, 2017); Wheaton, Obama’s shift on Cuban immigrants could put Trump in a bind, Politico (Jan. 12, 2017); Reuters, Cubans on Road to U.S. Distraught About Newly Closed Border, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2017).