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U.S. halts Cuban immigration program

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced Thursday it was ending the "wet foot/dry foot" policy, in place since the mid-1990s, that had allowed Cubans who arrived at U.S land ports to be given immediate legal status.

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The Obama administration’s halt of a decades-long provision that allowed Cubans who arrived at U.S. land ports to be given immediate legal status will likely put an abrupt end to the flood of Cubans arriving in Texas since 2014.

The "wet foot/dry foot" policy that had been in place since the mid-1990s allowed most Cubans who reached a U.S. land port to apply for a designation that allowed them to apply for legal residency status, or a “green card,” after living in the country for a year. The Department of Homeland Security said Thursday it was ending the policy, effective immediately.

In a statement, the DHS said Cubans who arrive at the ports without a visa will now be “subject to removal, consistent with our enforcement priorities.” The statement said the new policy was part of ongoing negotiations the Obama administration began with the Castro regime in 2014 and that the Cuban government has agreed to begin accepting Cuban nationals who have been removed from the United States.

Since that dialogue began, tens of thousands of Cubans have flooded the Texas border after making their way through Mexico and seeking refuge in the United States. 

In 2015, about 28,400 Cubans entered Texas through the Laredo field office of Customs and Border Protection, which extends from Del Rio to Brownsville. That figure exceeded the combined totals for the other 19 CBP field offices, which include Miami, Houston, New York and New Orleans. It also represented an 82 percent jump from 2014, when 15,600 Cubans entered through the Laredo field office. Thousands more also entered Texas through the El Paso field office in 2015 and 2016.

The surge prompted several Texas lawmakers, including U.S. Reps Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, and Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to call for an end to the former policy.

"This makes sense," O'Rourke said in a statement Thursday. "We shouldn't be treating Cubans any more favorably than immigrants from any other country."

Cuellar said in his own statement that he has long called for the end of the policy. "This is an important step forward in modernizing our outdated immigration policies towards Cuba," the statement read.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father fled Cuba, did not immediately make a statement on Thursday but has previously said a repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act should only come after Cuba is truly free and the Castro regime is no longer in power.

“The [Cuban Adjustment Act] is a recognition of the oppressive communist regime in Cuba that engages in political repression, torture and murder,” Cruz said in October 2015.

Engage Cuba, a Washington-based coalition of businesses and civic groups that promotes increased trade with Cuba and an end to the current trade embargo, praised the decision and said it was long overdue. The group has several state-based satellite groups, including one in Texas.

“This is a logical, responsible, and important step towards further normalizing relations with Cuba,” James Williams, Engage Cuba president, said in a statement. “The 'wet foot, dry foot' policy has been an enduring problem that decades of hostility and isolation failed to solve. This change, which has long had strong bipartisan support, would not have been possible without the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.”

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