WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (UPI) — The White House said Thursday that President Barack Obama has put an end to an old immigration policy that allowed all Cuban refugees who could physically reach U.S. shores to stay.

Obama said the so-called “Wet Foot/Dry Foot” policy, enacted more than 20 years ago under former President Clinton, is an outdated relic from a different time that is no longer relevant in the current political landscape.

The policy treated Cuban refugees differently than all other migrants, as they were the only ones officially allowed to remain in the United States if they lacked necessary paperwork to stay. Cuban immigrants who were caught at sea, however, were turned back.

The policy has been criticized for years by some who felt that such an open door is counterproductive to the U.S. government’s immigration efforts for other nations.

The White House said Thursday that the end of the policy is part of the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations, which Obama has taken great strides toward over the last two years. It also cited a need for consistency in U.S. immigration policy.

“Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with U.S. law and enforcement priorities,” the White House statement said. “By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.”

The White House said Havana has agreed to the return of undocumented Cuban nationals, much the same way it has already been accepting the returns of U.S.-bound migrants caught at sea.

The Department of Homeland Security is also ending the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, the statement said, which gave preferential immigration treatment to Cuban medical personnel.

Obama has taken a number of steps to improve relations with Cuba over the past two years — including lifting trade restrictions, flight restrictions and making a visit to Havana last year.

“The United States, a land of immigrants, has been enriched by the contributions of Cuban-Americans for more than a century,” Obama said. “Since I took office, we have put the Cuban-American community at the center of our policies. With this change we will continue to welcome Cubans as we welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our laws.

“The future of Cuba should be in the hands of the Cuban people.”

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