Havana (AFP) - More than 680 Cubans have been deported back to Cuba since the United States ended its decades-old policy giving them preferred immigrant status in January, state media reported Saturday.
According to official Cuban reports, 683 people have been sent back to the Caribbean island from the United States, or from Mexico, the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands, where they were crossing in a bid to reach the US border.
On January 12, then-president Barack Obama scrapped with immediate effect a 1995 policy that had given Cubans near-automatic entry to the United States if they managed to set foot on American soil, regardless of their visa status. Cubans attempting to enter the country by sea had been turned back.
The end of the so-called "wet-foot, dry foot" policy was part of the broader normalization and warming of US-Cuban relations after a half-century of hostility that Obama helped engineer in 2015 along with Cuban President Raul Castro.
Now, overland Cuban migrants are treated like those who have attempted to cross into the United States by water and can be sent back to Cuba -- unless they can convince US officials that they fear persecution or have valid humanitarian reasons to be let in.
Obama's action came just days before President Donald Trump took office on January 20. The Republican property tycoon has vowed to fight illegal immigration and also criticized the US-Cuban normalization deal.
Cuba's Communist government had opposed the "wet-foot, dry foot" policy on grounds that the special treatment encouraged illegal migration and human trafficking.
Cuban media reported Saturday that the United States had deported 40 Cubans on commercial flights and 75 by boat. Another two deportees arrived in Cuba on a charter flight Friday, according to the newspaper Granma and website Cubadebate.
Mexico deported 264 Cubans and turned away 144 who were trying to illegally enter the country through airports. The Bahamas and the Cayman Islands deported a combined 156 people.
A total of 50,082 Cubans entered the United States in 2016, according to the Office of Field Operations of the Customs and Border Protection Service. Of those, 38,310 arrived illegally, while 11,772 had a visa.
Last year's numbers exceeded the 36,700 Cubans who fled the island in 1994 in makeshift boats headed for the US coast some 90 miles ( 145 kilometers) away, during the so-called "raft crisis."
That was the second-largest mass exodus from Cuba since 1980, when 125,000 people fled to Florida on boats launched from the port of Mariel, in an incident known as the Mariel boatlift.