President Barack Obama announced Thursday that he is ending a longstanding immigration policy that allows any Cuban who makes it to U.S. soil to stay and become a legal resident.
The repeal of the "wet foot, dry foot" policy is effective immediately. The decision follows months of negotiations focused in part on getting Cuba to agree to take back people who had arrived in the U.S.
"Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with U.S. law and enforcement priorities," Obama said in a statement. "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."
Obama is using an administrative rule change to end the policy. Donald Trump could undo that rule after becoming president next week. He has criticized Obama's moves to improve relations with Cuba. But ending a policy that has allowed hundreds of thousands of people to come to the United States without a visa also aligns with Trump's commitment to tough immigration policies.
The announcement was greeted by Cuba activists in the Tampa Bay region with general enthusiasm, even among those with historically and stridently different views on U.S. relations with the communist country.
"I am delighted," said Tampa lawyer Ralph Fernandez, a staunch longtime opponent of lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
He said this will remove an escape path to the Cuban people, forcing them to seek change from the Castro regime.
"This is the pressure cooker we so often discuss," Fernandez said. "The lid is on and change is coming and justice is coming.
"My friends from both sides of the aisle are happy about that."
Indeed, Al Fox, a longtime advocate for ending the embargo who has frequently sparred with Fernandez, also welcomed the decision, if for a different reason.
He said for decades the United States has treated so-called asylum seekers from Cuba differently from emigrants from all other nations. Those seeking asylum enjoy financial benefits that cost taxpayers.
Fox called it a classic example of politicians pandering to a vocal minority that doesn't represent a larger whole.
"Every member of the Florida congressional delegation should be ashamed of themselves for supporting for 20 years such an absurd policy, just to pander to 500 people in Miami and 50 people in Tampa," said Fox, president and founder of the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.
Roberto Pizano, 78, who spent 18 years in a Cuban prison and was tortured for his efforts to oust Fidel Castro, agreed with Fox that the policy is often abused by today's asylum seekers.
"I agree that anyone being persecuted politically or religiously in Cuba needs political asylum, but in this case the way the policy works it was doing more bad than good," he said. "The new wave of migration that has been coming has been abusing it. They are coming here and claiming political asylum and getting money and going home to Cuba whenever they want."
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, released a statement addressing the decision.
"The Obama Administration's characterization of this change as part of the ongoing normalization with the Castro regime is absurd," Rubio said. "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."
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, called the move an important step toward normalizing relations with Cuba.
"We must continue to leave the Cold War policies behind and build new bridges for jobs and economic opportunities for both nations," she said in a statement.
"The 'wet foot, dry foot' policy was put in place many years ago to help those who were fleeing Castro's repressive regime," Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said. "I believe changing this outdated policy in order to be fair to all and also to prevent people from abusing the system is the right thing to do."
President Bill Clinton created the "wet foot, dry foot" policy in 1995 as a revision of a more liberal immigration policy that allowed Cubans caught at sea to come to the United States and become legal residents in a year.
The two governments have been negotiating an end to "wet foot, dry foot" for months and finalized an agreement Thursday. A decades-old U.S. economic embargo, though, remains in place, as does the Cuban Adjustment Act, which lets Cubans become permanent residents a year after legally arriving in the U.S.
Under the terms of the agreement, Cuba has agreed to take back those turned away from the U.S., if the time between their departure from Cuba and the start of deportation hearings in the U.S. is four years or less. Officials said the timeframe is required under a Cuban law enacted after Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act.
"For this to work, the Cubans had to agree to take people back," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.
Administration officials called on Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act.
Officials said the changes would not affect a lottery that allows 20,000 Cubans to come to the United States legally each year. But Rhodes cast the shift as a necessary step toward Cuba's economic and political development.
"It's important that Cuba continue to have a young, dynamic population that are clearly serving as agents of change," he said.
Rhodes also cited an uptick in Cuban migration, particularly across the U.S.-Mexico border — an increase many have attributed to an expectation among Cubans that the Obama administration would soon move to end their special immigration status.
Since October 2012, more than 118,000 Cubans have presented themselves at ports of entry along the border, according to statistics published by the Homeland Security Department, including more than 48,000 people who arrived between October 2015 and November 2016.
Relations between the United States and Cuba were stuck in a Cold War freeze for decades, but Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro established full diplomatic ties and opened embassies in their capitals in 2015. Obama visited Havana last March. Officials from both nations met Thursday in Washington to coordinate efforts to fight human trafficking.
Obama said the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which was started by President George W. Bush in 2006, is also being rescinded. The measure allowed Cuban doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to seek parole in the U.S. while on assignments abroad. The president said those doctors can still apply for asylum at U.S. embassies around the world.
Rep. 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."
Times staff writer Paul Guzzo and Washington Bureau chief Alex Leary contributed to this report.