Changes in U.S. Immigration Policy for Cuban Nationals

Department of Homeland Security ending the “wet foot/dry foot” policy that gave Cuban citizens preferential treatment in gaining U.S. green cards.

On January 12, 2017, President Barack Obama announced that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was immediately ending the “wet foot/dry foot” policy enacted in 1995 giving Cuban citizens preferential treatment in gaining U.S. permanent residency (a green card).

Since 1995, those Cuban immigrants who arrived on U.S. land (with “dry feet”), without a valid U.S. visa, were allowed to remain and to apply for a green card after one year under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 (CAA).

In contrast, visa-less immigrants intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard (with “wet feet”) were turned away and returned to Cuba. “Wet foot/dry foot” was implemented in order to discourage Cubans from making the dangerous trip to the U.S. by sea on unseaworthy boats. The CAA allows Cubans to become U.S. permanent residents if they were:

  1. admitted or “paroled” into the United States
  2. physically present in the U.S. for one year, and
  3. not otherwise inadmissible.

Although the CAA is still valid law, what is changing is how DHS and its enforcement arm of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) handle the processing of Cubans who arrive on dry land. Now CBP can refuse to admit or parole Cuban nationals at the border and may place them into expedited removal (deportation) proceedings as they do with other foreign citizens arriving without a valid U.S. visa. As a result, many arriving Cubans will not be paroled into the United States and will be unable to adjust status to permanent residence under the CAA.

The announcement was hailed as a welcome extension of U.S. efforts begun in 2014 to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. In 2015, a U.S. embassy in Havana was established, making it easier for Cuban citizens to apply for nonimmigrant visas to visit or study in the United States.

However, these efforts did not prevent Cubans from traveling to the U.S. without a visa and attempting to gain permanent residence via the CAA. The recent surge in Cuban arrivals to the U.S. in in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 most likely contributed to the decision to end the “wet foot/dry foot” policy. There were 56,406 Cuban arrivals in FY2016 versus only 24,278 in FY2014.

Along with the revocation of "wet foot/dry foot," DHS simultaneously ended the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (CMPP), which allowed Cuban doctors stationed in a country other than the U.S. or Cuba to come to the United States to live. CMPP was established in 2006 order to lure away medical professionals dispatched by Cuba to work in South American countries in an effort to bolster Cuba’s profile around the world. U.S. officials feared that these humanitarian efforts would lead to a spread of communist regimes throughout the Americas.

Despite these changes, the Obama administration left the Cuban Family Reunification Parole (CFRP) program intact, which allows U.S. citizens and permanent residents to enter the U.S. while waiting for an immigrant visa to become available. In order to participate in CFRP program, you must receive an invitation to apply for parole from the National Visa Center (NVC). It will be interesting to see whether or not the Trump administration allows the CFRP program to continue given these other recent changes to Cuban immigration policy.