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What it means that Obama just ended ‘wet foot, dry foot’

This story was first published at 7:11 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 12. We’ll update the story if more information becomes available.

No one will ever accuse President Obama of going out with a whimper. On Thursday he announced an end to the “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cubans coming to the U.S., effective immediately. That’s the policy from the Clinton administration that allowed any Cuban who set foot on U.S. soil to remain here and get on a path toward legal permanent residency.

Many people figured this was coming once Cuba and the U.S. began normalizing relations in December 2014 – but still. Whoa.

In his statement, Obama said the policy was “designed for a different era” and that its end means the U.S. will now be “treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.”

Here’s the big deal paragraph from his statement:

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.  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 most important part of this is his comment that Cuban migrants are now just like any other migrant coming to the U.S. – if they have a visa and any other requirements, they will be fine. If they arrive illegally and are caught, or overstay their visa, they’re getting sent home. Before, they were only deported if they were caught before reaching U.S. soil.

The Cuban Adjustment Act, which puts Cubans with legal residency on a path to citizenship and provides monetary benefits (among other things), remains in place, although it’s unclear whether it will still have teeth. We updated this paragraph to match a better understanding of the Cuban Adjustment Act after Obama’s move.

So is the lottery that brings 20,000 Cubans to the U.S. every year. Those were established by acts of Congress, while “wet foot, dry foot” was an agreement made by President Bill Clinton (that’s why Obama can just go “swoosh” and get rid of it).

The Obama administration said for awhile that it didn’t plan to change this policy, but pretty much everyone was skeptical of that. Record numbers of Cuban migrants have been coming to the U.S. the last couple years out of fear that exactly this would happen – the Miami Herald reports that a five-year high of 41,500 people came from September 2015 to September 2016.

Getting rid of “wet foot, dry foot” is a concession to the Cuban government, but it also kind of helped them out for a long time, the Herald explains:

The Cuban government has in the past complained bitterly about the special immigration privileges, saying they encourage Cubans to risk dangerous escape trips and drain the country of professionals. But it has also served as a release valve for the single-party state, allowing the most dissatisfied Cubans to seek better lives outside and become sources of financial support for relatives on the island.

Obama also announced an end to preferential treatment for Cuban medical professionals.

“It is important for Cubans to count on a young population that becomes agents of change,” said Ben Rhodes, an assistant to the president and a deputy national security adviser.

What he means by that: The policy change will remove a major incentive and avenue for young Cubans – the most likely drivers of change – to leave the island. Critics say this is mostly just a big concession to the Castro regime.

Let us know if there’s anything else on this issue that you need help wrapping your head around – or if you want to share your experiences and opinions with “wet foot, dry foot” – in the comments below.