Washington has scrapped an immigration policy that granted automatic residency to Cubans who reached dry land in the US. The scrapping of the "wet foot, dry foot" law was welcomed by Havana.
President Barack Obama announced on Thursday he would ditch the current policy, which has granted Cubans a backdoor route to a new life in the US for more than two decades.
Repeal of the "wet foot, dry foot" policy - which allowed any Cuban who reached US soil to stay but returned any picked up at sea - was effective immediately after Thursday afternoon's announcement.
"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," Obama said in a statement. "By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries."
Obama said that the Cuban government had agreed to accept the return of Cuban nationals who have been ordered removed - in the same way that it currently accepts those picked up at sea.
'Safe and ordered' migration
Although an eventual change of the rules had been expected, Thursday's abrupt ending of the status quo was intended to avoid giving advance warning to disaffected Cubans still planning to leave the island.
A 2014 announcement that the two countries would seek to normalize relations had already led to a rise in the number of Cubans - worried about an imminent end to the special immigration status - flocking to the US.
The Cuban government praised the move in a statement carried by state television. It was heralded as "an important step in advancing relations" between the US and Cuba that "aims to guarantee normal, safe and ordered migration."
The "wet foot, dry foot" pathway was created by former US President Bill Clinton in 1995. Previously the immigration policy had been even more liberal, allowing even those Cubans who were picked up at sea to become US residents within a year.
During the Cold War, the US was reluctant to send people back to the communist island, then run by revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. Cuba also generally refused to accept repatriated citizens.
End to residency route for medics
Obama also announced on Thursday that the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, introduced by President George W. Bush in 2006, would be rescinded. The program allowed Cuban medical professionals to seek parole in the US while on assignments abroad.
However, a decades-old US economic embargo remains in place. So, too, does the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to become permanent residents a year after they arrive legally in the US.
The changes were made through an executive order, which could be undone by President-elect Donald Trump after he takes office next week. However, the ending of a policy that grants a route to US residency for hundreds of thousands of people without visas could also chime with the incoming president's commitment to tougher immigration policies.
rc/msh (AP, Reuters)