RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
With just one week to go in office, the Obama administration has ditched a policy that had favored Cubans over people from other countries trying to enter the U.S. The change comes as the U.S. is working to improve relations with the Cuban government. NPR's Carrie Kahn covers Cuba, and she joins us on the line from Mexico City.
Good morning, Carrie.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Explain the change. What are the new rules for Cubans trying to reach the U.S.?
KAHN: Well, the new rules are that Cubans that come to the U.S. without a visa will now have to follow the same immigration procedures that all other migrants from all over the world have to follow. Since the 1990s, Cubans have had this special immigration privilege - it's known as that wet-foot, dry-foot policy. If a Cuban arrives on U.S. soil without a visa, they've been immediately admitted into the country and, in almost every case, can receive residency and other benefits after one year here. And Cubans caught trying to reach the U.S. by sea are returned. No other countries' migrants or refugees gets that fast track. But under this new change, Cubans can still apply for political asylum. They just have to do it like all other migrants from around the world have to do it.
MARTIN: But this is a huge change, right? What's been the reaction?
KAHN: Mixed, to say the least. The Obama administration, in a statement, said that by taking this step, we're treating Cuban migrants now the same way we treat migrants from all other countries. The Cuban government praised the change. They've long hated this policy, which they say entices people to take a dangerous trip to get to the U.S. They also praised another change in the policy which ended a provision that allows Cuban doctors working in Third World countries to ask for political asylum and come into the U.S. They say that's drained Cuba of its professionals.
So groups and U.S. lawmakers who favor the warmer relations between the U.S. and Cuba are happy, and those who have hated that change in policy are very unhappy. And Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat from New Jersey, said the announcement will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people.
MARTIN: So the Obama administration only has a week left in office. This is one of their last big policy decisions. Why is this happening now?
KAHN: Oh, this is the latest in a string of executive orders that President Obama has made since he surprised the world by normalizing relations back in 2014. But the big reason I think now, too, is that since re-establishment of those diplomatic ties, there's been a significant uptick in migration from Cuba to the U.S. More than 70,000 Cubans have come here in the past two years and many times walking right past immigrants from Central America and Africa that are fleeing horrific violence too back home. Many see the policy as just not being fair, especially since a lot of - in recent years, the Cuban migrants coming here are coming to the U.S. for economic reasons rather than political ones.
MARTIN: So now there's been this change. Will the change survive in the new Trump administration?
KAHN: That's the big question. Members of the transition team have said that they've been instructed by President-elect Trump to review all aspects of these executive orders President Obama has made with regard to Cuba. And in a statement last night, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio said he discussed this particular policy change with vice president-elect, and he's waiting next week when the administration changes.
MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City.
KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.