Washington D.C., Jan 15, 2017 / 06:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Friday, the U.S. bishops’ migration chair criticized the Obama administration’s denial of decades-old special protections for Cuban migrants to the U.S.

“I am disappointed over the Administration's sudden policy change to end the 'Wet Foot/ Dry Foot' policy for Cuban arrivals,” Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Texas, who heads the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Migration, stated on Friday. “While we have welcomed normalizing relations with Cuba, the violation of basic human rights remains a reality for some Cubans and the Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy helped to afford them a way to seek refuge in the United States,” he continued.

Previously, as part of the policy in place since the 1990s, Cubans who successfully entered the U.S. without a visa could be paroled for a year and then would be eligible for residency. Those migrants who were intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard on their way to the U.S. were returned to Cuba. Now that policy has been repealed and Cuban migrants found to have entered the U.S. without a visa will be deported back if they do not qualify for asylum.

Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security, announced the policy shift late Thursday afternoon in a phone conference with reporters. He said it was “part of the normalization of relations with the government of Cuba” and was meant to make the policy “consistent with our laws and our immigration enforcement priorities.” Now, as administration officials explained on Thursday, they “will be treated like everybody else.” They will be able to claim asylum and have a hearing. If fewer than four years have passed between a migrant’s departure from Cuba and the start of their deportation proceedings in the U.S., “the Cuban government has agreed to take that person back,” Johnson said.

White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes explained that a recent increase in migration from Cuba to the U.S., due more to a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations than political repression, precipitated the policy change. “What we've seen, therefore, is a steady increase to some 40,000 Cubans granted parole in fiscal year 2015; 54,000 roughly in fiscal year 2016,” he said.

Also, he said more Cubans were trying to access the U.S. through Central America and the U.S.-Mexico border and “that was creating both humanitarian challenges and strains within those countries as large numbers of Cubans were essentially stuck there and then facing a very difficult — and dangerous — journey to our southern border in some cases.”

President Obama said the old policy “was designed for a different era” in his Thursday statement. “During my Administration, we worked to improve the lives of the Cuban people — inside of Cuba — by providing them with greater access to resources, information and connectivity to the wider world,” he stated of his administration’s move to re-open diplomatic relations with Cuba and the loosening of travel restrictions and economic sanctions. “Sustaining that approach is the best way to ensure that Cubans can enjoy prosperity, pursue reforms, and determine their own destiny. As I said in Havana, the future of Cuba should be in the hands of the Cuban people,” Obama said.

Bishop Vasquez, however, lamented Thursday’s policy change as detrimental to Cubans seeking a better life in the U.S., particularly those fleeing religious or political repression.

“Cuban Americans have been one of the most successful immigrant groups in U.S. history. The protections afforded them were a model of humane treatment,” he said.

Now it “will make it more difficult for vulnerable populations in Cuba, such as asylum seekers, children, and trafficking victims, to seek protection.” Even in recent years, human rights abuses have continued under the Castro regime, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom warned in December.

“While USCIRF has noted that some improvements have been made in recent years in the area of religious freedom, our Annual Reports document the Cuban government’s continued violations,” they stated.

“Areas of concern include: harassment of religious leaders and laity, interference in religious groups’ internal affairs, and preventing democracy and human rights activists from participating in religious activities. The government also has threatened to close and confiscate church properties and reportedly has demolished some churches.”