Obama ending special immigration policy for Cubans

WASHINGTON, Jan 12 (Reuters) - The Obama administration is ending a policy that granted residency to Cubans who arrived in the United States without visas, several congressional sources said on Thursday.

The change in the policy, known as "wet foot, dry foot," is effective immediately. The Department of Homeland Security is also ending a policy for Cuban medical professionals, known as the parole program.

The policy change, which had been in the works for months, was made abruptly because advance warning might have inspired thousands more Cubans to take to the seas between the island and Florida in order to beat a deadline. "Otherwise you'd put lives at risk," one congressional aide said.

The end of the "wet foot, dry foot" policy was first reported by the Associated Press, citing a senior administration official.

The United States and Cuba have spent several months negotiating the change, including an agreement from Cuba to allow those turned away from the United States to return, the official said, according to AP.

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Daily life in and around Cuba
A vintage car decorated with a Cuban flag and carrying tourists waits in line to fill up with fuel at a gas station along the seafront boulevard "El Malecon" in Havana, January 12, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini (CUBA - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS COMMODITIES ENERGY SOCIETY TRAVEL)
Tourists from Colombia look at posters in a street arts fair in Havana, February 20, 2016. Picture taken February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Yalis, a 5-year old dog, barks at his owner as he jumps into the sea at the seafront Malecon in Havana, March 16, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
A taxi driver drives a vintage car in downtown Havana, January 16, 2015. The United States rolled out a sweeping set of measures on Thursday to significantly ease the half-century-old embargo against Cuba, opening up the country to expanded travel, trade and financial activities. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini (CUBA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY TRANSPORT)
Bici taxi driver Yosvani Gomes, 39, lifts the curtains of his vehicle after a rain in downtown Havana January 20, 2015. Cuba will tell the United States in face-to-face talks this week it wants to be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism before restoring diplomatic relations, a senior foreign ministry official said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini (CUBA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY)
Yiliana Benitez, 33, works at the H. Upmann cigar factory in Havana, February 26, 2015. Cuban cigar-maker Habanos S.A. envisions gaining 25 percent to 30 percent of the U.S. premium cigar market if the United States lifts its trade embargo on Cuba, potentially selling 70 million to 90 million cigars per year, the company said on Monday. The prospect of the United States lifting is 53-year-old embargo improved after the United States and Cuba announced on December 17 their intention to restore diplomatic relations. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini (CUBA - Tags: BUSINESS COMMODITIES)
Cowboy Ariel Peralta (C), 25, watches a rodeo show at the International Livestock Fair in Havana March 22, 2015. Picture taken March 22. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. artists and art curators who came to visit the 12th Havana Biennial walk in downtown Havana, May 29, 2015. The United States formally dropped Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism on Friday, an important step toward restoring diplomatic ties but one that will have limited effect on removing U.S. sanctions on the Communist-ruled island. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Cuba's Capitol, or El Capitolio as it is called by Cubans, is seen in Havana, July 1, 2015. The United States and Cuba on Wednesday formally agreed to restore diplomatic ties that had been severed for 54 years, fulfilling a pledge made six months ago by the former Cold War enemies. U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro exchanged letters agreeing to reopen embassies in each other's capitals, with the Cubans saying that could happen as soon as July 20. The Capitolio, which resembles the U.S. Capitol in Washington, was built in 1929 and was the seat of the government until after the 1959 revolution. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Tourists take pictures of a statue representing the Republic at Cuba's Capitol, or El Capitolio as it is called by Cubans, in Havana July 9, 2015. Cubans are once again touring their Capitol, an imposing structure previously shunned as a symbol of U.S. imperialism but now undergoing renovation and set to reopen as the new home of the Communist government's National Assembly. Picture taken July 9, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Dancer Cristian Perez, 20, (R) and informatics student Ariana Dexido, 17, dance near the sea in Havana, Cuba, July 12, 2015. Picture taken July 12, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Mechanic and salsa dance instructor Ariel Domninguez, 26, (L), gives a class to Jarman Frash, 25, a medical student from Germany in Havana, February 4, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Tourists dance during a salsa class at the beach in Varadero, Cuba, August 26, 2015. Cubans are flocking to the beach in record numbers before a possible end to the U.S. travel ban that would open the gates to American tourists and bump up prices. Picture taken on August 26, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Retiree Madeline Barcelo swims at the beach with her granddaughter in Varadero, Cuba, August 26, 2015. Cubans are flocking to the beach in record numbers before a possible end to the U.S. travel ban that would open the gates to American tourists and bump up prices. Picture taken August 26, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Human resources worker Carmen Oivedo (R) talks to her daughters during their vacations at the beach in Varadero, Cuba, August 26, 2015. Cubans are flocking to the beach in record numbers before a possible end to the U.S. travel ban that would open the gates to American tourists and bump up prices. Picture taken on August 26, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Cuban tourists sail in a rented sailboat at the beach in Varadero, Cuba, August 26, 2015. Cubans are flocking to the beach in record numbers before a possible end to the U.S. travel ban that would open the gates to American tourists and bump up prices. Picture taken on August 26, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Pre-university students walk in downtown Havana to mark the first day of class for the 2015-2016 course, September 1, 2015. Universal free education is one of the pillars of the socialist society built in Cuba since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Cuban soldiers hold flags of Cuba and Youth Communist league during a ceremony in Havana November 27, 2014, marking the anniversary of the deaths of student leaders killed during the fight against Spanish colonial rule. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini (CUBA - Tags: ANNIVERSARY POLITICS MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A picture of former Cuban President Fidel Castro is seen inside a post office in Havana, December 11, 2015. Cuba and the U.S. have agreed to restore direct postal service after a half-century rupture in one of the first bilateral deals since the former Cold War foes re-established diplomatic ties in July. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
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The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

President Barack Obama has been working to normalize relations with Cuba since he and President Raul Castro announced a breakthrough in diplomatic relations in December 2014.

The move to end the residency policy comes just eight days before Obama turns the White House over to Republican Donald Trump, who has said the United States should get more concessions from Havana in exchange for improved relations.

U.S. immigration policy has given Cubans benefits granted to nationals from no other country. Until now, virtually every Cuban who made it to U.S. soil was granted the right to stay in the country, the right to apply for work permits and, later, green cards, which convey lawful permanent residency.

Some U.S. lawmakers have been demanding a fresh look at Cuban immigration policy in the past few years.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Eric Beech; Editing by Eric Walsh and Tom Brown

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