Opinion: As U.S., Cuba normalize relations, time to change immigration policies for Cubans

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As state visits go, President Obama’s recent trip to Cuba was entirely normal, and that is precisely what the Obama Administration is trying to achieve – normalized relations between the United States and Cuba. Now that he is pushing for travel and trade are getting back to “normal,” it’s important that we apply the same standard across all U.S. policies toward Cuba. That includes immigration.

As the president is fond of saying, the Cold War is over. Agreed. Now it’s time to amend our immigration policies. If the United States is going to treat Cuba like any other country, we should treat its citizens like any other immigrants.

— Nelson Balido

Currently, the United States treats Cuban citizens like no others. The Cold War birthed a U.S. immigration policy towards the island nation that considered every Cuban citizen to be a political refugee as soon as they touched American soil. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 was designed to give asylum to the 300,000 Cubans who fled the communist revolution, and the act is still used today to determine immigration status.

This law is accompanied by a minimum 20,000 visas handed out to Cubans each year through a lottery system, as well as President Bill Clinton’s wet food/dry foot policy, which continues to shelter Cubans who make it to the United States while repatriating those caught in the act of immigration (such as in a makeshift raft traversing 90 miles of ocean between Cuba and Key West, Florida).

Today, immigration from Cuba to the United States is accelerating rapidly. In 2015, there was a 78 percent increase in the number of Cubans entering the United States, and about two-thirds entered through Laredo, Texas; and so as of March 2015 the number is already approaching 26,000 for the fiscal year.

This significant uptick owes in part to Cuban concerns that U.S. immigrations laws may soon change. For decades, U.S. policies have given Cubans a direct path to U.S. residency unavailable to any other nationality of immigrants. Many families benefited from this, including those of presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, former candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, and this author.

My parents came to the United States from Cuba in the early 1960s, fleeing Castro’s communist regime. My father was the youngest of three children, and his brothers fought in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Growing up, I heard all the stories about a difficult journey and adjustment in the United States. I heard about my grandfather hollowing out the heels of my grandma and mother’s shoes so they could secret some the family jewels and heirlooms to their new home. I heard about my father’s struggles selling balloons on the street in New York City. And I heard of how hard it was to simply acclimate into a foreign land that was not used to many immigrants from Latino nations – yet fortunately the Catholic church helped place many, especially the children that came on their own through the “Peter Pan” flights. 

My family was accurately given political refugee status, as were many others. I appreciate the good that the U.S. immigration policy toward Cuba has achieved for thousands of people. But I also see that since the United States is now counting Cuba amongst nations with which we have “normal” relations, we must extend that to our treatment of Cubans arriving at America’s doorstep. There are several reasons for this.

No Longer Political Refugees: The majority of Cuban immigrants arriving in the United States are seeking economic, not political, relief. A leaked 2009 U.S. State Department survey found that Cubans “overwhelmingly” were economic migrants, not political refugees. The whole point of the provision in the Cuban Adjustment Act that fast-tracks Cuban residency was to grant liberty to people fleeing communist persecution. That is not what the law is achieving. Instead, it is giving a big boost to Cubans who are doing what many people around the world try to do—live and work in the United States for the prospect of a richer, freer future. That is a “normal” aspiration around the world. If their motivations are the same as other immigrants, why should Cuban citizens be treated differently?

Refugee Status Has Real Costs: American taxpayers are generous, offering financial support to people who leave everything behind for a shot at a life in America. Currently, Cuban immigrants enjoy about $700 million each year in public benefits. That is a lot of good will and public support that is in some cases going to people who don’t need it. It has been reported that some Cuban immigrants take advantage of government aid programs (like food stamps and Medicare) while frequently traveling back and forth to Cuba for commercial reasons. In essence, the U.S. taxpayer is subsidizing a jet-set Cuban lifestyle and not advancing the economic potential of an American resident. Aren’t there other legal immigrants who could legitimately use some of that public support?

Implications for the Rule of Law: While many Cubans arriving in the United States are honorable and law abiding, some are not. Currently, Cuba’s travel policy allows its citizens to leave the country for up to two years. This has led some criminal organizations to come to the United States, turn an illicit profit, and then return to Cuba when there is a threat of incarceration. At the same time, Cuba is one of the few countries in the world that will not repatriate convicted criminals, leaving the United States with no recourse but to take the good with the bad. During my recent visits to Washington, Dc and Laredo, law enforcement sources have reported privately that many of the people arriving in the current wave of Cuban immigration are criminals, and it appears that amid all the international good will, the Castro regime is emptying its prisons on U.S. borders. Unfortunately, U.S. law enforcement has no insight into the background of arriving immigrants and so are unable to deny entry to criminals under existing law.

Despite these evident problems, Obama Administration officials, such as Secretary of State John Kerry, have said repeatedly that they have no plans to revisit U.S. policy. Fortunately, much of this matter is in the sole province of lawmakers, and U.S. legislators are taking steps to change the laws. In October last year, Rep. Paul A. Gosar introduced “Ending Special National Origin-Based Immigration Programs for Cubans Act of 2015,” which would repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act. And in March, the bipartisan work between Reps. Blake Farenthold and Henry Cuellar yielded the Correcting Unfair Benefits for Aliens (CUBA) Act, which would also amend policies on asylum and public benefits.

As the president is fond of saying, the Cold War is over. Agreed. Now it’s time to amend our immigration policies. If the United States is going to treat Cuba like any other country, we should treat its citizens like any other immigrants.