WASHINGTON — President Obama today revoked the “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy that has provided refuge for Cubans escaping the communist island since the mid-1990s, prompting Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) to accuse the administration of turning its back on people fleeing persecution.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), whose family fled Cuba when she was 7 years old, declared that Obama eliminated the refugee policy, and the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program that encouraged defections of doctors and nurses working abroad, “because that’s what the Cuban dictatorship wanted and the White House caved to what Castro wants.”
“Castro uses refugees as pawns to get more concessions from Washington so there is no reason to do away with the Cuban medical doctor program, which is a foolhardy concession to a regime that sends its doctors to foreign nations in a modern-day indentured servitude,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
The Department of Homeland Security said the programs were scrapped for the sake of “ongoing normalization of relations between the governments of the United States and Cuba” and “a commitment to have a broader immigration policy in which we treat people from different countries consistently.”
“The United States 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,” DHS said in a statement, adding that the Cuban government “has agreed to begin to accept the return of Cuban nationals who have been ordered removed.”
“Cuba and the United States will work to further discourage unlawful migration to the United States and promote bilateral cooperation to prevent and prosecute alien smuggling and other crimes related to illegal migration.”
Obama said the policies were “designed for a different era” and the elimination of the medical parole program was for the benefit of Cubans. “By providing preferential treatment to Cuban medical personnel, the medical parole program contradicts those efforts, and risks harming the Cuban people,” he said. “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.”
“With this change we will continue to welcome Cubans as we welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our laws,” the president added. “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.”
On a White House call with reporters this evening, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said there has been “a continued uptick in Cuban migrants coming to the United States” since the administration’s policies to deepen relations with the regime have gone into effect, and officials “did not want to speculate publicly about the likelihood of this change for fear of inviting even greater migration flows.”
“There’s obviously an enormous number of — there’s a very large Cuban American population, and many Cuban migrants are already here. It was going to be too complicated, frankly, to significantly return people who are already here,” Rhodes said. “We wanted to get things right going forward.”
Rhodes added that “the best way” for Cubans to have opportunity “is for them to be able to pursue it at home through an economy that has continued to pursue market-based reforms.”
Menendez said Congress “was not consulted prior to this abrupt policy announcement with just nine days left in this administration.”
“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,” the senator said.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said on the White House call that “the discussions leading up to this were very sensitive,” and that’s why Congress was left in the dark.
“The policy that we’re announcing today is effective immediately. We did not want for there to be a mass exodus from Cuba in anticipation of a change in policy,” Johnson said.
— Franco Ordoñez (@FrancoOrdonez) January 13, 2017
15 Cubans are lined up on Mexican side of border at Laredo border station blocked from entering. “Help us. Help us.”
— Franco Ordoñez (@FrancoOrdonez) January 13, 2017
White House official said they hoped Congress would repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act, the 1966 law allowing migration of Cubans able to escape. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) acknowledged that the law needs reform, but said “the Obama administration’s characterization of this change as part of the ongoing normalization with the Castro regime is absurd.”
“We must work to ensure that Cubans who arrive here to escape political persecution are not summarily returned to the regime, and they are given a fair opportunity to apply for and receive political asylum,” Rubio said.
He called on the incoming Trump administration to reverse the part of the executive order eliminating the medical parole program and “allow these doctors to seek asylum at U.S. embassies or consulates in other countries.”
Menendez said the eliminated policies “reflect our commitment to the values of liberty and democracy.”
“We should never deny a Cuban refugee fleeing a brutal regime entry into the United States. We must remind ourselves every day of the continued oppression and human suffering that is happening – not only halfway around the world, but just 90 miles off our shores. The ongoing repressive behavior of the Cuban regime still haunts our hemisphere today,” the New Jersey Dem said. “The fact is the recent ill-conceived changes in American policy towards Cuba have rewarded the regime with an economic lifeline while leaving everyday Cubans less hopeful about their futures under a brutal totalitarian dictatorship.”
“And while more needs to be done to prevent the small universe arriving from Cuba who may seek to exploit the privileges and freedoms that come with the ‘wet-foot/dry-foot’ policy, those few actors should not destroy our efforts to protect the many who are forced to flee persecution.”