A Last-Minute, Ill-Conceived Gambit

With just over a week left to his term, President Obama chose last week to effectively end a 22-year-old policy designed to help ease the way toward American citizenship for people fleeing the deprivations and repressions of a famously failed dictatorship.

The so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy toward Cuban refugees dates to 1995, when, in the wake of a mass exodus of Cubans to the United States, former President Bill Clinton changed the “open door” policy on Cuban refugees established by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Clinton policy took its name from the fact that it requires Cubans caught trying to reach the United States by sea to return home, but permits those who make it onto American soil to stay and eventually apply for legal, permanent residency.

Mr. Obama’s action was wrought through a new Department of Homeland Security regulation and a deal with the Cuban government, which the president said had agreed, against its standing policy until now, to accept the return of its citizens.

“Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal,” Mr. Obama said, “consistent with U.S. law and enforcement priorities.”

“By taking this step,” he asserted, “we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.”

That may be so, but there is a reason why Cuban immigrants have for decades been welcomed to our shores even without visas. While the Obama administration, in 2015, restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and removed travel restrictions to the Communist island nation, and even with Fidel Castro removed from the scene, the Cuban regime remains deeply repressive and unconcerned with human rights. Paving the way for Cubans who are motivated to seek free and prosperous lives has been an American goal in the past and should continue to be one in the future.

Another worthy program that the Department of Homeland Security just ended is the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which allowed certain Cuban medical personnel put to work by Cuba in other countries to come, with their immediate family members, to the United States.

Since October 2012, more than 118,000 Cubans have presented themselves at ports of entry along the border, according to statistics published by the Homeland Security Department. During the 2016 budget year, which ended in September, a five-year high of more than 41,500 people came through the southern border. An additional 7,000 people arrived between October and November.

The great majority of Cubans, moreover, who have migrated to our country have become productive parts of American society.

One such success story is Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Although a respected Democrat, he sharply criticized the president’s action, saying it “will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people.” He also objected to the fact that Congress had not been consulted on the move, and accused the Obama administration of seeking “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.”

Another Cuban-American, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, agreed. “With just eight days left in his administration,” he said, “President Obama has found one more way to frustrate the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people and provide yet another shameful concession to the Castro regime.”

The last-minute nature of the change in time-honored policy is indeed disturbing in its own right. While there may not be a Constitutional means to limit the actions of an imminently retiring president, if there is some Congressional action that could prevent last-minute lame-duck actions that aim to reverse longstanding federal policies, it should be pursued.

It is unclear whether the incoming president will seek to undo the damage Mr. Obama has done with this latest action. Mr. Trump has famously touted stronger border security and sought to limit the number of immigrants to the United States. Providing special options to those seeking to leave a particular country may not sit well with him. But Mexico, all said and done, isn’t a repressive Communist country like Cuba, and we hope Mr. Trump will recognize the import of that distinction.

On his way out the White House door, Mr. Obama has chosen to draw closer the Cuban government, to the detriment of freedom-loving Cuban people. We urge Mr. Trump to take action to resist the blandishments of the Cuban government, and restore America’s special relationship to the Cuban people.