ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
President Obama is taking some of his final actions before leaving the White House. And yesterday, he made a surprise announcement ending the policy known as wet foot, dry foot. Since 1995, Cubans intercepted at sea were returned to Cuba. Cubans who touched U.S. soil were allowed to stay and become legal residents. Well, now that's all changed.
And NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami where Cuban-Americans have had mixed reactions to the news.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In Miami's Westchester neighborhood, La Carreta is where many Cuban-Americans meet for two of their favorite activities - to drink coffee and talk politics. Juan Vega was happy to talk about Obama's lifting of wet foot, dry foot.
JUAN VEGA: My thoughts are that they should have done it sooner rather than later.
ALLEN: Vega is 71, part of that first generation of Cuban exiles. He says unlike earlier exiles who left Cuba because of political repression, the vast majority of Cuban migrants now are economic refugees no different, he says, from Mexicans or Central Americans.
VEGA: They have no political inclination. They have no political philosophy. They even refuse to talk against the government because all they come here is to get signed up on government policies and government aid to send money to Cuba.
ALLEN: That's a view not shared by Cuban-Americans in Congress. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called Obama's policy change a foolhardy concession to the Castro regime. Senator Marco Rubio said steps must be taken to ensure Cubans who experience political persecution are able to receive asylum here.
In a windy parking lot at La Carreta, Peter Padron said for years, the special status Cubans enjoyed encouraged human smugglers to turn it into a business.
PETER PADRON: Twenty-five-thousand is going to people in Miami, going to people in Cuba, going to Mexicans in the safe house in Mexico.
ALLEN: It's a human smuggling system, Padron says, well known in Miami - $25,000 to get your family member out of Cuba. Padron admits there are disagreements in the community over wet foot, dry foot. Cuban-Americans who arrived in recent years with close family members still on the island see it differently.
Ramon Saul Sanchez with the Democracy Movement in Miami works with many newly arrived Cuban migrants. He says at bottom, political repression by the communist regime is still what forces Cubans to leave their homeland.
RAMON SAUL SANCHEZ: The repression that the people live under - of course it deprives them of the ability to live decently from an economic point of view, and it is then also caused by politics.
ALLEN: In the last two years since Obama announced his plans to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba, migration from the island has surged. Worried that their special status could soon be lifted, last year, nearly 55,000 Cubans came here without visas. The U.S. will still issue some 20,000 visas each year to Cubans through an immigration lottery, but this policy change effectively ends what's become a flood of migrants from Cuba.
Saul Sanchez is worried about what happens to Cubans that the U.S. rejects and returns to the island. Cuba's communist regime has long considered any who wanted to leave counter-revolutionary. That, Saul Sanchez says, will be an additional burden for Cubans turned away by the U.S.
SAUL SANCHEZ: They are branded by the government, and that means you don't get to study. You don't get to receive the better jobs and many, many other things that would happen to you once the regime makes you an outcast.
ALLEN: Despite this major policy change, Saul Sanchez predicts Cubans will continue making the trip by boat to the U.S. The Coast Guard today released a statement saying it stands ready to continue to stop illegal immigration. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE KILLS SONG, "DOING IT TO DEATH")
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