US President Barack Obama has ended a longstanding immigration policy that extends automatic residency to Cubans arriving in the country without visas.
The “wet foot, dry foot” policy was “designed for a different era,” Obama announced in a statement on Thursday.
The 20-year-old policy allowed any Cuban migrant who makes it to the US to become legal permanent resident after a year.
“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 US law and enforcement priorities,” Obama said in his statement.
“By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries,” the president added.
The policy shift came with only days left in Obama’s presidency and after he had worked for years to normalize relations with Cuba.
However, the improved ties also prompted a surge of immigration from the island, with many hoping to become legal US residents under the unique “wet foot, dry foot” policy.
Obama said the Cuban government had agreed to accept the return of Cuban nationals who have been ordered to leave the US.
In a statement on state television, the Cuban government hailed the agreement as “an important step in advancing relations” between the two countries which “aims to guarantee normal, safe and ordered migration.”
Incoming President Donald Trump could undo the change after taking office next week. He has criticized Obama’s moves to improve relations with Cuba.
The Obama administration and the Cuban government held 18 months of secret talks that led to a joint announcement on December 17, 2014, that the two long-time adversaries would restore diplomatic relations and release prisoners on both sides.
Obama capped his efforts with a visit to Havana last year.
Despite this, Washington continues to maintain its embargo on the country, which makes it illegal for US corporations to do business with Cuba.