USA Foreign Policy First Look

Why Obama shut the 'open door' to US for Cuban migrants

The Obama administration on Thursday reversed the 'wet foot, dry foot' decades-old policy that guaranteed Cuban migrants arriving on US soil a path to legal residency.

With the sweep of a pen Thursday, President Obama ended a 20-year-old policy that has permitted thousands of fleeing Cubans to legally settle in the United States.

Under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, Cubans intercepted at sea were sent home or to a third country, whereas Cubans who reached US soil – with “dry feet” – were allowed to stay and become legal residents after one year.

Following the 2014 initiation of renewed US diplomatic ties with Cuba, more Cubans have fled to the US, fearing the end of a generous immigration policy. But many of these recent immigrants fled for traditional immigration reasons, such as improve economic opportunity, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said, according to The Washington Post, whereas previously, more fled for political reasons.

More than 54,000 Cubans came to the US under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy in 2016. But effective immediately, the new joint agreement will accept 20,000 Cubans each year through traditional immigration protocol. 

Mr. Obama further explained his decision in a press release Thursday

With this change we will continue to welcome Cubans as we welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our laws. During my Administration, we worked to improve the lives of the Cuban people – inside of Cuba – by providing them with greater access to resources, information and connectivity to the wider world. Sustaining that approach is the best way to ensure that Cubans can enjoy prosperity, pursue reforms, and determine their own destiny. As I said in Havana, the future of Cuba should be in the hands of the Cuban people.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Cuban Adjustment Act which allowed Cubans to become American citizens after living in the United States for two years – essentially granting Cubans an “open door” to the United States. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuban President Fidel Castro made a number of threatening speeches and numerous riots ensued. In response, the number of Cubans fleeing to the US skyrocketed in the early 1990s.

The migrant influx led President Bill Clinton to modify the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1995, establishing the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. 

“This was bound to happen at some point,” Havana taxi driver Guillermo Britos told the Associated Press. “It could impose a more normal dynamic on emigration, so that not so many people die at sea, but it could also take an escape valve away from the government, which was getting hard currency from the emigrants.”

Obama’s decision Thursday has drawn both criticism and praise but not along the partisan lines that have defined so much of his presidency. 

Republican Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake called the move “a win for taxpayers, border security, and our allies in the Western Hemisphere,” that “brings our Cuba policy into the modern era....”

However, Florida's Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the child of Cuban immigrants, was more critical of Obama’s actions.

“While I have acknowledged the need to reform the Cuban Adjustment Act for some time now, the Obama Administration’s characterization of this change as part of the ongoing normalization with the Castro regime is absurd,” said Senator Rubio in a statement. “It is in fact President Obama's failed Cuba policy, combined with the Castro regime’s increased repression, that has led to a rise in Cuban migration since 2014.”

This report contains material from Reuters.