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US President Barack Obama has ended a two-decade-old "wet foot, dry foot" policy that allows most Cuban migrants who reach US soil to become legal permanent residents after a year.
The move, coming in the last days of the Obama administration, is seen as a significant step towards normalising America's relations with its one-time foe.
"The Department of Homeland Security is ending the so-called "wet-foot, dry foot" policy, which was put in place more than twenty years ago and was designed for a different era," Obama said in a statement yesterday.
He said the US is taking important steps to normalise relations with the communist nation and to bring greater consistency to its immigration policy.
"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," he said.
"By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries," he added.
The "wet foot, dry foot" policy mostly allows Cubans who reach US soil to stay in the country. Those caught at sea are returned to Cuba.
In exchange for the policy change, "the Cuban government has agreed to accept the return of Cuban nationals who have been ordered removed, just as it has been accepting the return of migrants interdicted at sea," Obama said.
The decision is expected to weigh upon the strategy of President-elect Donald Trump, who had vowed to renegotiate ties with Cuba.
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said that in addition to the revoking the "wet-foot/dry-foot" policy for Cuban migrants, the United States is also ending the special Cuban Medical Professional Parole program.
Johnson said these actions are part of ongoing normalisation of relations between the governments of the United States and Cuba.
"Cuba and the United States will work to further discourage unlawful migration to the United States and promote bilateral cooperation to prevent and prosecute alien smuggling and other crimes related to illegal migration," Johnson said.