More migration reform: Cuba opens door to many illegal emigres and defectors

Allowing more Cubans to return to Cuba will help accelerate the warming trend between the island and its diaspora, and could lead to a change in US policy toward the island.

Desmond Boylan/Reuters
People queue for Spanish visas outside the embassy in Havana October 16. In addition to easing most Cubans' exit and return, the Cuban government said they will allow Cubans who have left the island return for visits. The changes are the communist island's first major immigration reform in half a century.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

After issuing reforms to its migration law last week which will give most Cubans the right to freely travel abroad without getting permission first, the Cuban government has just announced it will allow tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Cubans who left Cuba illegally in the last two decades to return to the island for visits. This will include not only many defectors but also rafters who headed to the United States during the economic crisis that peaked in 1994 and 1995.

There are several key implications of this new policy. First, and most importantly, it is another significant step in the normalization of relations with the Cuban diaspora. Certainly, any visits made by these Cubans abroad will bring economic benefits to the island. But allowing more Cubans to return to the island of their birth will help accelerate the warming trend between the island and its diaspora. More Cuban Americans, for instance, will now have a stake in U.S. policies that increase their access to the island - and their relatives' access to the US. They will also be less inclined to press for or support sanctions that could harm their loved ones or that could jeopardize this new, more open relationship with the island.

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But will the strongest opponents of the Cuban government welcome these reforms? Not necessarily. These reforms and their impact on Cuban Americans' attitudes only spell trouble for the US embargo. More and more, it's unclear who really wants the policy to stay in place, and a day will come when the momentum will shift to the reformers, rather than remaining with a dwindling number of supporters of the isolationist status quo.

In particular, Cuba's new migration policies could put pressure on key elements of the embargo, such as the wet-foot, dry-foot policy, and even the Cuba Adjustment Act. Each of these policies was created for Cubans fleeing the island. Together they make it easier for Cubans to arrive illegally and to apply for a green card in just one year's time. With so many Cubans able to come and go without persecution by the Cuban government, what remains the basis for these policies?

– Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, a project of the "US-Cuba Policy Initiative,” directed by Ms. Landau French, at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.

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