Cuban Migrants Flock to U.S., Fearing End to Generous U.S.-Cuban Immigration Policies

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Photo courtesy of tgraham.

Since President Obama’s announcement in December 2014 that the United States would begin to “normalize relations” between the U.S. and Cuba, there has been a 78% increase in the number of Cubans seeking to enter the United States. The Obama administration’s reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries and high-level negotiations on other issues such as travel and remittances led many Cubans to assume that changes to the U.S.’s Cuban immigration policies would be forthcoming. Because those policies are currently so favorable to Cubans, many are trying to enter the U.S. before those anticipated changes occur.

In 1966, amid Cold War tensions, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA). Still in effect today, the law presumes that all Cubans who arrive in the U.S. are political refugees fleeing the Castro regime’s persecution and provides them with benefits enjoyed by no other group of immigrants. Under the U.S.’s so-called “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, Cubans who make it onto U.S. soil are generally allowed to enter the country through “parole,” a mechanism through which individuals are allowed to enter “for urgent humanitarian reasons” or “for significant public benefit,” while those apprehended at sea are returned to Cuba. Paroled Cuban entrants are eligible to apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status, commonly known as a “green card,” after being present in the country for one year and one day, even if they first tried to enter without authorization. (The CAA is set to expire once Cuba becomes a democracy.) In addition, Cubans (as well as Haitians) who are paroled are immediately eligible for a number of benefits otherwise reserved for refugees, such as employment training and job placement programs, housing assistance, English classes, and other services; by contrast, most other types of immigrants to the U.S. generally cannot access any public benefits until they have been LPRs for at least five years.

This special treatment is well known among citizens of the island nation. But while the CAA was enacted to provide assistance to those fleeing the repressive regime of Fidel Castro, critics contend that most Cuban entrants in recent years are merely searching for better economic opportunities in the U.S. Cuban-American U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio is among a number of Republican lawmakers who have pledged to “re-examine” the law and who find it hard to continue defending when many beneficiaries travel back and forth between the U.S. and Cuba after obtaining their green cards. Others criticize the hypocrisy of the U.S.’s policies towards Cubans versus those fleeing different but sometimes more horrific conditions in Central America. While Cubans are welcomed with open arms, women and children fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are detained, put into fast-tracked removal proceedings in immigration court, and subject to raids on their homes by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

It is unclear whether or when Congress will in fact change or repeal the CAA. The State Department recently stated that “[t]he Administration has no plans to alter current migration policy regarding Cuba,” and it seems unlikely that any major changes on the controversial topic of immigration will happen in an election year. But plenty of Cubans are still afraid of that possibility, resulting in ever greater numbers coming to the United States in recent months, seemingly due to a rumor in Cuba that the CAA policies would change in January 2016.

For several years now, many Cubans have made their way to the United States by first traveling, counterintuitively, south. Due to the wet-foot, dry-foot policy, most Cubans who can afford it try to enter the U.S. by land, and many have found that the best way to do that is by first flying to Ecuador, who stopped requiring visas for Cuban travelers in 2012. In Ecuador, the migrants are given three-month tourist visas to allow them time to begin their northward journey – over land through Ecuador and Colombia, by boat to Panama, and then by land up through the rest of Central America and Mexico until they reach U.S. soil, often with the help of guides or “coyotes” who usually charge thousands of dollars.

 

But the U.S. is not the only country to notice the increasing number of Cubans making this arduous journey. In early November 2015, authorities dismantled a human trafficking ring in Costa Rica, which disrupted the flow of migrants, including thousands of Cubans. Costa Rica issued temporary transit visas to the Cubans, but the interruption of normal migrant flows led to a buildup of Cubans all attempting to cross from Costa Rica into Nicaragua at once. As a result, Nicaragua accused Costa Rica of “deliberate and irresponsible action” and refused to allow the Cubans to continue north. This resulted in the stranding of an eventual 8,000 Cuban migrants in Costa Rica after Nicaragua deployed its army along the border between the two countries. While Nicaraguan authorities claimed they were merely acting to protect their national borders, many commentators were quick to point out that Nicaragua, one of Cuba’s closest allies in the region, was likely trying to win favor with the Castro regime, which condemns its citizens’ desertion to the U.S.

Local and international aid organizations set up shelters to temporarily house and feed the migrants stuck at the border, and by late December, the governments of the region had reached an agreement. Beginning in January 2016, groups of Cubans would be airlifted out of Costa Rica to El Salvador, bypassing Nicaragua altogether, and would continue by bus through El Salvador and Guatemala to Mexico, where they would then have 20 days to make it to the U.S. border on their own. The first “pilot” group of 180 Cubans was flown to El Salvador on January 12, but Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister stressed that the agreement only applied to Cubans already in Costa Rica at that time, and that any Cubans arriving in the country without a visa after December 18, when Costa Rica stopped issuing them transit visas, could be deported. Though the U.S. does not appear to have been directly involved in this solution’s design, it seems likely that the seven Central American governments who were involved at least believe that the Cubans will not be turned away upon reaching the U.S. border.

It remains to be seen how the U.S. will react to the increased flows of Cuban migrants over the U.S.-Mexico border, and how the situation will affect the ongoing “normalization” of U.S.-Cuba relations. U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida, himself Cuban-American, wrote a letter to President Obama in November asking what the administration’s plans are and underscoring that “many Cubans are responding to the idea of a normal relationship between their oppressors and the United States with fear and desperation, leading many of them to risk their safety and their lives to escape the prison that is Castro’s Cuba.” A month later, Rep. Curbelo proposed legislation that would end the automatic benefits granted to Cubans upon arrival in the U.S., which he hopes will be a first step toward drastically rewriting U.S. immigration policy towards Cubans, which Curbelo believes many of today’s Cuban immigrants abuse. Earlier, U.S. Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona introduced legislation to repeal the CAA altogether, asking, “[i]f President Obama has normalized relations with Cuba, why would we treat illegal immigrants from that nation any different than those from other countries?” Cuba, for its part, also believes that current policy “encourages illegal emigration” from Cuba to the U.S. and contradicts the ongoing efforts to open up relations between the two countries.

While the U.S.’s recent silence on the matter may be understandable if it does not want to add grist to the rumor mill already churning in Cuba, it seems likely that the issue will need to be addressed in a more concrete manner sooner rather than later.

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