Time to end special privileges for cuban immigrants

An essay

Dr. Susan Eckstein
Columbia University '72
Professor of Sociology and International Relations, Boston University

President Barack Obama has taken initial steps toward overhauling the broken U.S. immigration system and failed Cuba policy. It is also time to bring Washington’s Cuban immigration policy in line with other foreign-born people. Cubans enjoy unique immigration privileges that are no longer justifiable.

Since Fidel Castro seized power in Havana in 1959, Cubans who reach the United States without immigration visas have been given a path to citizenship. For the past 20 years, they have been guaranteed immigration visas not offered other foreigners.

U.S. presidents and Congress have also given Cuban immigrants rights offered no others. The policy was initially devised to sap the Cuban regime of its talented citizens and highlight these Cubans’ preference for capitalist democracy over communism.

During the Cold War, Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson admitted Cubans fleeing the Communist regime with temporary visas or visa waivers not offered any other foreign nationals. Then, in 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which entitled Cubans who reached U.S. shores to temporary parole status and, a year later, to permanent legal residency with a path to citizenship.

Congress designed this bill to apply only to the 165,000 Cubans who had taken refuge in the United States and whose immigration status was in limbo. The legislation, however, had no expiration date. So it has been applied for nearly 50 years to new arrivals from Cuba and about half-million Cubans have benefitted since 1966. There are no “undocumented” Cubans in the United States.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton gave Cubans yet another unique immigration privilege. He signed a bilateral accord with the Cuban government guaranteeing that the U.S. consular service in Havana would issue no fewer than 20,000 immigration visas yearly to Cubans. No other foreign-born people enjoy such a guarantee.

While giving preference to family reunification, the agreement specifies that a minority of visas are reserved for victims of persecution. Clinton signed this new example of Cuban exceptionalism, post-Cold War, when Cuba was no longer viewed as a security threat. He did so at a time when about 33,000 economically desperate Cuban boat people, without visas, were trying to make their way across the Florida Straits to reach the United States.

The accord, as modified in 1995, also specified that Washington and the Castro regime would collaborate to return to the island Cubans found in the Florida Straits. In principle, the agreement ended Cubans’ ability to make their way to the United States without entry visas — and thereby stripped the Cuban Adjustment Act of all meaning. With his eyes on his impending reelection bid, Clinton sought to prevent a flood of boat people comparable to the exodus in 1980, when about 125,000 Cubans reached U.S. shores. Public opposition to the boat people contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s failed re-election bid that year.

In practice, however, Cubans continue to enjoy the unique benefits of the Cuban Adjustment Act. Though the U.S. Coast Guard stepped up its policing of the Florida Straits, Cubans determined to immigrate but unable to get one of the 20,000 yearly visas tried new ways to reach U.S. soil — and to qualify for the law’s privileges. Many make their way to Mexico and cross the border into the United States from there. Recently, however, they have tried again to test their luck at sea by seeking to outrun the U.S. Coast Guard. Last year, about 25,000 Cubans came by land and sea without immigration visas.

Combined with bilateral-accord entrants, a total of 40,000 Cubans immigrated last year — all gaining legal privileges. This is an extraordinary number, especially for a country of Cuba’s size.

The reason for Cuban immigration exceptionalism has changed. Domestic concerns have now replaced foreign-policy considerations. Most Cubans settle in Florida, the largest political swing state. Because Cuban-Americans are well organized and have votes to deliver, Congress and recent presidents have been reluctant to retract immigration privileges that the Cuban-American community favors. For more than four decades, Cuban-Americans have supported their immigration entitlements and defended them when threatened.

Nonetheless, Florida’s Cuban-American members of Congress have begun to speak out against the 1966 law. They do not advocate ending it. Rather, they wish to limit its application to genuine refugees — Cubans whom they know will comply with what they call the “personal embargo,” an informal, unofficially sanctioned ban on travel to the island.

Genuine refugees comply because they fear persecution if they return to their homeland. Yet refugees need not rely on the Cuban Adjustment Act to move to the United States. They may officially qualify for some of the 20,000 annual Cuban entry slots, as well as for general refugee-immigration slots.

The Cuban-American politicians primarily represent the concerns of Cubans who emigrated during the Cold War, fleeing the Castro regime for political reasons. Many of these Cuban-Americans view travel to Cuba as a violation of the broader embargo they continue to support and want respected.

In contrast, most post-Cold War arrivals, like most immigrants, come to the United States to pursue the economic American Dream.  They want to visit family they left behind. Each year, as members of the older generation die, these younger Cubans comprise an ever-larger portion of the Cuban-American community. More Cubans immigrated in the first decade of this century than in any previous decade.

The new Cubans oppose the U.S.-Cuba people-to-people embargo that the Cold War émigrés continue to defend. Each year, hundreds of thousands of them take advantage of Obama’s new policies to visit relatives on the island. Obama’s travel opening is based on the assumption that the Cuban-born in the United States are immigrants, not refugees.

In Washington’s overhauled Cuba immigration policy, Cubans should have the same rights as other foreign-born immigrants — no more, no less. The minority who seek refuge from persecution qualify for admission independent of the Cuban Adjustment Act and independent of Clinton’s bilateral immigration agreement. Their refugee rights should be protected.

Both the Cuban-American political leadership and the Obama administration have created an opening to address the outdated U.S. policy on Cuba. It is time to stop unjustly favoring Cubans above all other immigrants.


PHOTO (TOP): Cuban refugees hold up empty jugs as they beg for water while floating on the high seas in home-made rafts about 45 miles south of Key West, August 21, 1994. REUTERS/Archive.

This article was originally published in Reuters on January 6, 2015.


Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.