Two years after President Obama moved to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, Cubans continue to enjoy special treatment under a 1960s law designed to undermine Fidel Castro’s Communist regime.
The law, the Cuban Adjustment Act, offers a fast track to permanent, legal residency to any Cuban admitted into the United States. Critics contend it is an outdated law that stopped making sense decades ago and now lacks even a modicum of justification.
“It’s a Cold War relic … It’s a discriminatory bill that treats Cubans much better, more favorably than any other nation on the globe.”
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“It’s a testament to this administration’s amazing incompetence that they wouldn’t repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act before normalizing relations,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “It’s a Cold War relic … It’s a discriminatory bill that treats Cubans much better, more favorably than any other nation on the globe.”
Since Obama moved toward normalization in 2014 — the actual exchange of ambassadors took place last year — there has been a sharp upturn in Cubans coming to America. Stein said that is a combination of Cuba easing restrictions on travel by its citizens and fears that the United States will eliminate special status for Cubans. Failing to repeal the law first, he said, is like “parking a car in San Francisco without putting on the parking brake.”
America’s special treatment of Cubans has its roots in the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power. Thousands of Cubans fled to the United States. In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower declared all Cubans to be political refugees, and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966. Cubans gain immediate eligibility for the full array of government assistance programs — and after a waiting period of a year and a day in the United States, they become permanent residents and get a green card.
For years, not many Cubans could get to the United States. But the number of Cubans without visas arriving in the United States jumped from 17,896 in fiscal year 2013 to 24,277 in fiscal year 2014 and then spiked to 43,154 in fiscal year 2015. The total for the current fiscal year has already exceeded that.
Cubans ‘Leaving in Droves’
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, said the Obama administration has compounded the problem by its interpretation of the law. Prior to passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, the United States sent Cubans arriving at the southern border to make asylum claims at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, where they were detained until U.S. officials reviewed their cases.
[lz_table title=”Visa-less Cubans Admitted to U.S.” source=”Center for Immigration Studies”]Fiscal year,Number admitted
Now, Vaughan said, U.S. border officials wave Cubans into the country. After conducting a background check, they give the Cubans provisional status. As a result, Vaughan said, most Cubans no longer come by boat across the Florida Straits. Instead, they come by land — predominantly through Laredo, Texas. Almost two-thirds of all Cubans entering the United States last year came by way of the Laredo field office.
“People are just leaving [Cuba] in droves, because they know all they have to do is make it to the United States and they can stay,” Vaughan said.
She added that a loosening of Cold War economic sanctions on Cuba has also exacerbated the issue. Cuban-Americans are now able to send unlimited amounts of money to relatives, who can then use it to hire smugglers to get to the United States.
“Before, it wasn’t a big deal because people didn’t have the opportunity or the means,” she said.
Cubans often travel to a Central American country and then make the journey through Mexico to the U.S. border, where they ask for their Cuban Adjustment status. “It’s a well-worn route at this point,” Vaughan aid.
Few are Persecuted
Critics maintain that most of the Cubans coming to the United States are not fleeing political persecution but are seeking better economic opportunities — no different from the hundreds of thousands of other foreigners who come each year. On a recent visit to the border, Vaughan said, she learned that some Cubans did not even come straight from their home country. One Cuban had worked as an IT worker in Ecuador for two or three years, she said.
“If we’re going to treat Cuba like any other country in the world, you’d think we probably should treat people from Cuba the same as people from anywhere else in the world who try to come here illegally,” said Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA.
Stein, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the law does not even achieve its supposed purpose. By encouraging dissidents to leave, he said, the United States unwittingly helps the regime maintain its grip on power.
“It’s a prop-up-dictator-support policy,” he said. “They actually wind up draining off dissenters.”
The law has attracted legislative efforts. Last year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) proposed treating Cubans the same as other immigrants. He pointed to abuses that include Cubans coming to the United States, signing up for welfare benefits, and then returning to Cuba to receive checks passed on by their U.S. resident relatives.
Last year, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) sponsored a bill that would repeal the Adjustment Act — but it has not moved. Stein said the politics of Florida and the nation will make it difficult to push a bill through Congress.
“It’s past time that it should be repealed,” he said. “It should be priority one in the next Congress.”