President Obama ended a 22-year-old policy allowing Cuban immigrants without visas to stay in the United States on Thursday night.
The policy, known as “wet foot, dry foot” and instituted in 1995, dictated that Cubans caught trying to make it to the America would be returned to Cuba, but allowed Cubans who made it to America to stay and apply for permanent residence status.
In a statement, President Obama said policy change was another step towards normalizing relations with Cuba. Obama added the change would help “to bring greater consistency to our immigration policy.”
“These policies reflect our commitment to the values of liberty and democracy. We should never deny a Cuban refugee fleeing a brutal regime entry into the United States. We must remind ourselves every day of the continued oppression and human suffering that is happening – not only halfway around the world, but just 90 miles off our shores.”
In his statement, Menendez slammed the secrecy surrounding the change:
"Congress was not consulted prior to this abrupt policy announcement with just nine days left in this administration. The Obama administration seeks to pursue engagement with the Castro regime at the cost of ignoring the present state of torture and oppression, and its systematic curtailment of freedom.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also released a statement in which he said the policy needed to be updated, but added that the U.S. must protect Cubans from persecution by allowing them to stay in the country:
“The Cuban Adjustment Act has provided countless Cubans the opportunity to escape the Castro tyranny. However, in recent years it has also led to growing abuses. While some changes were needed, we must work to ensure that Cubans who arrive here to escape political persecution are not summarily returned to the regime, and they are given a fair opportunity to apply for and receive political asylum."
Rubio said he is “heartened” by the fact that there will soon be a new administration “committed to discarding the failed Cuba policy of the last two years.”
Over the past two years, the Obama administration has taken steps to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, including loosening travel and banking restrictions and re-opening the embassy in Havana. Last year, President Obama made history as the first president to travel to Cuba since the 1920s.