December 4, 2023

President Obama Ends Three Special Parole Programs for Cuban Migrants

Source: Pixabay

Alicia Nicholls

In his final act aimed at further normalising Cuban-US relations, the outgoing United States President, Barack Obama, announced the immediate end to three long standing special parole programmes to which only Cuban migrants were beneficiaries and which had been part of the US’ policy to isolate Cuba.

According to a fact sheet released by the US Department of Homeland Security on January 12, 2017, the following special parole programmes have been ended with immediate effect:

  • The “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy
  • The Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program.
  • An exemption that previously prevented the use of expedited removal proceedings for Cuban nationals apprehended at US ports of entry or near the US border.

The Fact Sheet stated that “it is now Department policy to consider any requests for such parole in the same manner as parole requests filed by nationals of other countries.”

It should be noted that the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Programme was not one of the programmes ended and remains unchanged because it “serves other [US] national interests”.

Cuban Adjustment Act & Wet Foot, Dry Foot 

As part of the US’ attempt to isolate Cuba following the island’s turn to a communist path to development, native born and Cuban citizens have enjoyed special immigration rights in the US since the 1960s. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 provides for the adjustment of the status of a native born or Cuban citizen who reaches the US into a lawful permanent resident once the following conditions are met: inspection, admission or parole into the US, physical presence in the US for at least one year and being otherwise admissible.

This policy was amended by the “wet foot, dry foot” policy  under President Clinton in 1995 as a result of an understanding following the Cuban Rafter Crisis. Under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, only those Cubans who actually reach dry land (dry foot) can request parole and adjustment to legal residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. Those who are intercepted at sea (wet foot) would be arrested and deported to a third country. Hence the term, wet foot, dry foot.

In his Statement, President Obama noted that the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, was “designed for a different era” and that by ending it, the US will be treating Cuban migrants the same as it treats other migrants.

Exemption from Expedited Removal Proceedings & CMPP Programme

Cuban nationals were exempt from being removed through expedited removal proceedings. This will no longer be the case. Moreover,the Department of Homeland Security will no longer accept parole applications from medical professionals under the Cuban Medical Professional Parole programme which was instituted in August, 2006. This programme allowed certain Cuban medical personnel, conscripted to work in a third country (that is, neither in the US nor Cuba), to apply for parole.

In his statement, President Obama noted that “Cuban medical personnel will now be eligible to apply for asylum at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, consistent with the procedures for all foreign nationals.”

Justifications for ending programmes

In justifying the end to the three special parole programmes mentioned, the Department of State noted that the policies had been “justified by certain unique circumstances, including conditions in Cuba, the lack of diplomatic relations between our countries, and the Cuban Government’s general refusal to accept the repatriation of its nationals.”

These factors no longer apply in light of the steps towards normalisation of US-Cuba relations which began in the second term of Mr. Obama’s presidency in 2014, including the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington. Although several restrictions have been eased on Cuba through presidential executive actions, the embargo, however, remains in effect and requires congressional action for its removal. The Cuban government has also agreed to accept repatriated nationals. Another reason proffered by the Department of Homeland Security for the removal of the special parole programmes is “a significant increase in attempts by Cuban nationals to enter the United States without authorization”.

Additionally, in his Statement President Obama made a final plea for the normalisation to be continued by the incoming president, by noting that (bold is my emphasis):

During my Administration, we worked to improve the lives of the Cuban people – inside of Cuba – by providing them with greater access to resources, information and connectivity to the wider world. Sustaining that approach is the best way to ensure that Cubans can enjoy prosperity, pursue reforms, and determine their own destiny.


Havana’s reaction to the announcement has been of jubilation, especially as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy is one which the Cuban Government has opposed. The reaction of Cuban migrants, many of whom had been beneficiaries of the special programmes, has been mixed.

A Trump Reversal?

Up to the time of writing this article, US President-elect Donald Trump had not expressed an opinion on this development. The big question on everyone’s mind is how long will this policy reversal last considering that in just a few days, President Obama will hand over the reins of the presidency to the incoming president. President-elect Trump has ambiguously stated that he would “renegotiate the deal with Cuba” unless the Cuban government “offers better a deal” for its citizens.

In light of this, some have speculated that  President Trump may reverse the policies as part of an attempt to walk back the normalisation begun under president Obama? However, a Trump reversal of these changes might not be a foregone conclusion. President-elect Trump has been strongly anti-immigration in his stance and has previously termed the “wet foot, dry foot’ policy unfair.

In this context, I find it unlikely Mr. Trump will reinstate policies which one can argue encourage illegal immigration in a context where his policy platform was based on stemming the tide of immigration and protecting American security and jobs. He may keep the status quo or he may perhaps go further and end the existing Cuban Family Reunification Parole program which allows beneficiaries to travel to the United States before their immigrant visas become available. Considering, however, that that programme serves other national interests, this too may be unlikely. But only time will tell.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.


The Caribbean Trade Law and Development Blog is owned and was founded by Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc. (Hons), M.Sc. (Dist.), LL.B. (Hons), a Caribbean-based trade and development consultant. She writes and presents regularly on trade and development matters affecting the Caribbean and other small states. You can follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw. All views expressed on this Blog are Alicia's personal views and do NOT necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may from time to time be affiliated.

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