US-Cuba thaw: What will happen to cold-war Cuban migration policy?

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on President Obama’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba. One aspect of relations already receiving attention is the 1966 law granting Cubans special immigrant status.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, speaks to reporters following a hearing on Cuba on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 3, 2015.

For decades, Cubans who made it safely to US soil – often after a perilous crossing of the Florida Straits in a flimsy raft – have benefited from a cold-war-era law that prohibits their deportation and puts them on a Cubans-only fast track to US residency and citizenship.

In other words, under US immigration law there were Cubans – and then there was everybody else.

But now, President Obama’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba after more than five decades of hostility between the two countries is adding momentum to efforts that were already building steam to redo US laws. The objective would be to treat Cubans something closer to the way most others seeking entry to the United States are treated: as people primarily seeking economic betterment but less commonly acting to escape political persecution.

Calls to change the 1966 law granting Cubans special immigrant status can now be heard from Miami to Congress. The Miami-Dade County Commission voted last month to lobby Congress to revise the law, and freshman US Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) of Florida is pressing for changes that would limit the law’s protections to Cubans fleeing their country for political reasons.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee plans to hold a hearing Wednesday on Mr. Obama’s Cuba initiative. The committee is set to hear from Roberta Jacobson, State Department assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, as well as Commerce and Treasury officials, and is expected to probe the impact that policy changes could have on Cuban immigration.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida called a similar hearing Tuesday morning for the Senate Foreign Relation Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, which Mr. Rubio chairs. He and fellow Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, offered the panel’s strongest opposition to Obama’s Cuba opening.

However, change in US immigration law toward Cubans seems inevitable if the objective is truly to normalize relations between the two countries, some regional experts say – although no one foresees reform of decades-old policy happening quickly.

“One would expect, with everything else that’s happening [in US-Cuba relations], that migration policy would have to regularize,” says Eric Farnsworth, a former White House adviser on the Americas who is now vice president of the Americas Society-Council of the Americas in Washington. “But it’s been on separate tracks since almost forever,” he adds, “so I wouldn’t expect that process of reforming migration policy to happen overnight.”

Growing doubts about the future of US immigration policy as it pertains to Cubans and mounting demands for it to change are together having some unintended consequences, among them:

• Causing a spike over the past month or so in the number of Cubans who – fearing Cuba’s special status is about to end – have taken to the seas to try to reach US soil.

• Widening a split in the Cuban-American community between generally older, more adamantly anti-Castro members who (like Rubio) want to see US laws focused on rescuing the island’s politically persecuted, and the generally younger and less politically motivated recent arrivals who don’t want to lose the “golden ticket” of current immigration law.

• Making strange bedfellows of some Cuban-American members of Congress, including Rubio, and the Cuban government, with both calling for changes in the US laws granting automatic asylum to all Cubans reaching the US.

Social media sites and chat rooms serving the Cuban immigrant community and Cubans aspiring to make the trek to Miami have been full recently of warnings that coming changes are making departure a now-or-never proposition.

Smugglers and migration advocates have been busy telling Cubans that “normalization” of relations will soon deprive Cubans of their special immigration status – echoing the advice that smugglers gave Central Americans last summer to send their children to the US to take advantage of supposed (though as it turned out, nonexistent) special asylum provisions.

In 1995, the “wet feet, dry feet” policy was a provision added to US Cuban immigration policy. The provision is so named because it calls for Cubans intercepted at sea (those with wet feet) to be returned to Cuba, but those who manage to reach US soil (those with dry feet) are allowed to stay – and to attain green-card status a year and a day after arrival.

In recent years a third element – known as the “dusty feet” Cubans – has unofficially become part of Cuban immigration to the US, as more Cubans have opted to enter the US at the US-Mexico border.

US officials insist there will be no change in US laws in the short term – a position that appears to have helped ease the mini rush for the exits. The spike in departures, which Cubans called the “salidera,” occurred in the weeks following the Dec. 17 statements by Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announcing plans to renew diplomatic relations between the two longtime adversaries.

US border patrol saw the number of Cubans processed through its Miami field office more than double to 2,135 in the last quarter of 2014 compared with the same quarter a year earlier, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics. Numbers were even higher at Mexico border crossings, where nearly 6,500 Cubans were registered crossing into the US in the last three months of 2014 – a 50 percent jump over the same quarter in 2013.

The fact that some of the most powerful members of the Cuban-American community favor tighter restrictions on Cuban immigration might seem surprising. But the shift reflects the growing political diversity of the Cuban community in the US and a waning of anti-Castro fervor among newer immigrants focused on economic priorities.

Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, is just one political leader who is critical of a growing number of Cubans who come to the US presumably as political exiles, but then just a year later are traveling regularly between Miami and Havana (under the eased travel restrictions for Cuban exiles visiting family, which Obama approved in 2011).

Saying he would never criticize Cubans returning to visit family, Rubio told a group of reporters in Washington last August: “What I do think is that if you come to this country and say you are in exile, fleeing oppression, and a year and a day after you’ve lived here you travel back to Cuba 20-30-40 times a year, it really undermines that argument.”

So far, however, the two governments are showing no signs of finding common ground on redoing migration arrangements. At migration talks in Havana last month – the first talks on the issue between US and Cuban officials since December’s normalization announcements – each side stuck to its usual guns.

The Cuban government demanded an end to a US policy that it says only encourages a “brain drain” of Cuban professionals who, after getting a free education in Cuba, are enticed by America’s open door to seek lucrative posts in the US. American officials chose to focus on Cuba’s obligation under existing migration accords to take back “excludable aliens,” which by and large refers to Cubans who have committed crimes.

With the Obama administration at least so far resisting any change in Cuba immigration policy, it may end up being Cuban-Americans (including those in Congress) who prompt a reform of the cold-war-era law.

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