KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
We have news today of a major change in U.S.-Cuba policy. The Obama administration is ending the practice of granting automatic residency to Cubans who flee their country and make it to U.S. shores. The rule has come under increased scrutiny since President Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba in 2014. NPR's Carrie Kahn covers Cuba and joins us now from Mexico City. Hi there.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.
MCEVERS: So how does this change what the U.S. does with Cubans who come here?
KAHN: Well, since to since 1995, Cubans who make it onto U.S. soil - actually touch dry land - have been given immediate parole into the country, and within a year, they get residency privileges. It's a priority immigration policy that no other migrant or refugee from any other country enjoys, just Cubans.
So now Cubans arriving by land without a visa will be treated as any other migrant and put in what they call expedited removal procedures and sent home. But also like other migrants, if they have a credible fear, they can declare that at the border, and they'll be given a hearing before an immigration judge.
In a statement today, President Obama said by taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from all other countries.
MCEVERS: I mean this used - this was called the wet foot, dry foot policy, right? If you got one dry foot onto land, then you were granted...
KAHN: You were in.
MCEVERS: ...These privileges - right.
MCEVERS: So what has been the reaction today to this change among Cubans?
KAHN: Well, this was just announced, so reaction is coming in just quickly. But let me just read you two comments. One - the first one is from Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont, a Democrat. He's a long supporter of warmer ties with Cuba, and he of course said this is a welcome step in reforming an illogical and discriminatory policy that contrasts starkly with the treatment of deserving refugees from other countries.
And then on the other - opposite end, Bob Menendez, a Cuban-American congressman from New Jersey, a staunch opponent of the Castro regime, is very unhappy with the change. He said, quote, "to be sure, today's announcement will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people."
MCEVERS: How important has this policy been for Cubans?
KAHN: It's been very important. For Cubans on the island, it's been a lifeline for many escaping political persecution. It's also been a safety valve for the regime, we have to say, for getting rid of dissidents on the island.
But despite that, the regime has long hated this policy, saying it's an enticement to drain Cuba of its professionals, especially doctors. And they've long wanted it to end. And there has been a long - a lot of speculation since relations began warming between the U.S. and Cuba that this policy would end, and that's fueled quite an exodus out of Cuba in the last two years.
Tens of thousands have come to the Mexico border, taking this exhaustive trip through South America, Central America and Mexico. And I've talked to many of them along the route, and they've said that a big motivation is that they feared what actually happened today - an end to this special privilege.
MCEVERS: This comes just a week before President-elect Donald Trump takes office. I mean he has said that he could take a tougher line on Cuba. Could he reverse this?
KAHN: It's unclear, but I'll just say the secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, told senators yesterday at his confirmation hearing that President-elect Trump has asked everyone to review all of the Obama administration's executive actions on Cuba. So presumably that could include this, too.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn. Thank you very much.
KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.